The resignation of Garret Graves as chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) creates an opportunity for Gov. Bobby Jindal to reassess his position on some important environmental issues. In recent months, Graves was Jindal's leading spokesman against an environmental lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) against 97 energy companies. Those companies carved up many miles of fragile coastal wetlands over the past eight decades, and the suit seeks to make them pay their share of the cost of restoring those wetlands — plus the increased costs of protecting southeast Louisiana against hurricane-related floods.
In opposing the flood authority lawsuit, Graves was relentless to the point of being shrill. That's too bad, because his overall record as CPRA chairman drew praise from virtually all segments of the coastal community. Over the past six years, Graves turned the fledgling state agency into an effective, respected force for improved hurricane protection and accelerated coastal restoration. Among his top accomplishments as CPRA chair was the overhaul and adoption of Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan. The plan initially had a projected price tag of $50 billion, but some now say it could cost as much as $100 million. It remains unfunded, but all acknowledge that it is based on science, not politics. That alone is a significant accomplishment.
Graves also served as director of the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities, which earned him the oft-used title of Jindal's coastal czar. His position put him at the forefront of every major environmental and hurricane protection issue to hit Louisiana since 2008 — from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster to Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Isaac to record floods along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' ongoing levee projects across south Louisiana. He brought to his job at CPRA years of experience in Washington, where he served on the staffs of U.S. Sen. David Vitter and former U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, as well as on the staff of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That experience gave him equal measures of political savvy and policy expertise on coastal issues.
John Barry, the noted historian who clashed with Graves over the SLFPA-E lawsuit, told The Times-Picayune last week that Graves made significant contributions to Louisiana's coastal restoration efforts. "If you look at where we were when he took over and where we are now, he did a tremendous job," Barry told the newspaper. Area environmental groups also praised his work at CPRA, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. The groups issued a joint statement calling Graves "an impassioned, effective leader in the fight to reconnect the Mississippi River to its wetlands to create a more sustainable future."
We acknowledge Graves' impressive legacy at CPRA because we also believe he was seriously wrong in his opposition to the SLFPA-E lawsuit, and we hope his departure will afford the governor an opportunity to reconsider his plan to kill the suit via legislation this spring. It's no secret that Big Oil will mount a big-budget campaign to pass legislation halting the lawsuit. Jindal and Graves have mischaracterized the suit as an attempt to make the energy industry pay the entire cost of coastal restoration. That's just flat-out false. Proponents of the lawsuit have said from day one that they seek only to hold the industry accountable for that portion of coastal land loss — and improved hurricane protection — that is directly attributable to oil and gas exploration and development in the wetlands. Even industry leaders concede that oil and gas activities have significantly contributed to wetlands loss. Barry, who is recognized nationally as a flood authority, likewise acknowledges that Mississippi River levees also are a prime contributor to coastal erosion because they deprive the marshes of sediment needed to replenish them.
At the end of the day, Barry and the governor both want to fund the Coastal Master Plan. Their main difference is whether the energy industry should pay its share of the cost of that plan, as Barry and SLFPA-E suggest, or whether the state should try to convince the federal government (read: American taxpayers) to pick up the entire tab, as Jindal suggests. We think Jindal's course of action is foolhardy. We urge him to reconsider — and we doubly urge lawmakers not to kill the SLFPA-E lawsuit, because it's the best and perhaps only way to bring Big Oil to the bargaining table.