Changes at Wildlife Board
The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has elected Bobby Samanie III of Houma as its statewide chairman, marking the first time in several years that a commercial fishing representative has headed the influential board. But Samanie isn't the only commissioner charting new waters in 2009. The board has a diverse membership, wildlife issues previously unheard of are cropping up and a state budget deficit is knocking at the door. Gov. Bobby Jindal earlier this month appointed Ann Taylor, editorial director of Louisiana Sportsman magazine, as an at-large member — and the commission's first female member. Taylor also is among the first commissioners to be plucked from the field of journalism. Samanie says the diversity of the current commission fits right in with the variety of issues being debated. For example, a biologist told the board at a recent meeting that there have been cougar sightings in Louisiana for the first time in years. There's likewise a growing problem with wild hog populations statewide and invasive plants choking waterways. Samanie also will lead the board through treacherous fiscal waters. State officials foresee a budget deficit of $341 million for the current fiscal year, which ends in late June, and a $2 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year. In taking the gavel, Samanie quoted former President Theodore Roosevelt about the many instances where protecting natural resources intersects with everyday life. He said he wants the commission to be that kind of guardian when it comes to making decisions and absorbing any cuts that come down from the administration. "That's how we're going to best address these challenges," Samanie says. "We need to take a hard look at what we're facing ... and find ways to improve." — Jeremy Alford
Lawmakers OK Relief Funds
After raising a few objections about administrative costs, state lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved a proposed action plan that includes more than $438 million in hurricane relief for south Louisiana. The plan, which the Louisiana Recovery Authority drafted to address parish-level needs for rebuilding, now goes to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for final approval. It outlines how federal Community Development Block Grant funds should be spent statewide. Because the Legislature is not in session these days, lawmakers voted by mail on five separate parts of the plan. While the Senate voted unanimously in support, there were nine opposing votes in the House against the amount of money earmarked for administrative costs for local and state governments. "It's just excessive," says Rep. Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, a Larose Democrat who voted against the provisions. "No matter how you look at it, $22 million is way too much just to run a program like this. That's just creating overhead and the money isn't going where it should."
Also voting against the spending allocation were Reps. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans; Thomas Carmody Jr., R-Shreveport; Noble Ellington, D-Winnsboro; Nita Hutter, R-Chalmette; Sam Jones, D-Franklin; Jerome "Dee" Richard, I-Thibodaux; Joel Robideaux, I-Lafayette; and Christopher Roy Jr., D-Alexandria. LRA spokeswoman Christina Stephens says the recovery effort is growing, especially as the state prepares to receive $438 million from the feds to fix challenges created by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike last year. She adds that the initial CDBG allocation could eventually grow by another $400 million or so. — Alford
Drilling Rule Targets Interstate Systems
Louisiana has enacted what may be the most stringent rule in the country for drilling near an interstate highway. Issued by Commissioner of Conservation James H. Welsh last week, the new policy prohibits oil and gas companies from drilling wells within 1,000 feet of an interstate highway that crosses a major waterway. That includes areas such as the I-10 crossing of the Atchafalaya Basin, Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain; the I-12 crossing of the Amite River; and the I-20 crossing of the Red River, among others. Most energy-producing states don't even have such rules, and those that do have an average 100-foot threshold. But Louisiana officials are still reeling from the gas well blowout in November 2007. The blaze was tremendous and closed I-10 at Ramah, right outside Grosse Tete, for 11 days. Welsh says other rules that went into effect in December complement the ban. They call for recurring training, design specifications, mandatory preventers, new diverters and updated requirements for the quick operation of valves controlling in-pipe gas and fluid flow.
"We want to minimize as much as humanly possible all potential well blowouts, no matter where the well is located," Welsh says. Oil and gas companies aren't exactly overjoyed with the new regulations, but most have been quick to point out their value. For instance, Bridas Energy USA Inc., which was responsible for operating the Ramah well in 2007, reportedly plans to redrill in the same area, only this time under the new 1,000-foot guidelines. "The new rules have placed new burdens on oil and gas exploration companies, but they, too, recognize the need to make the drilling process as safe as possible for their employees and the public," Welsh says. — Alford