Coast Guarding

An unlikely partnership between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists aims to resuscitate Louisiana's "Energy Coast."



On July 23, more than 20 state lawmakers from across the country gathered in Louisiana to listen to Louisiana's coastal wetlands czar, Garret Graves, chair of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. "Take this message home: This is a nationally significant issue," Graves said. "You should care about it because of energy, maritime, agriculture, seafood and money."

Graves' statement couldn't have been more poignantly illustrated. Sitting in the "new" Lakefront airport, adjacent to the hurricane-ravaged pre-Katrina facility, the group listened under darkened skies. Hurricane Dolly was pounding the Texas-Mexico border, its outer bands whipping over Port Fourchon, La., the heart of the nation's only offshore oil port and that day's destination for the visiting legislators.

Later, as they flew over the Mississippi River, the lawmakers saw firsthand more than 280,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil leaking into the river from a wrecked barge in the Port of New Orleans, closing the nation's fifth largest port — a billion-dollar disruption in commerce.

Louisiana's coast produces 90 percent of the nation's domestic offshore oil and gas, providing $5 billion in annual royalties to the U.S. Treasury. Five of the top 15 ports in the nation are in Louisiana. In 2006, the state commercial fisheries brought in $202 million and accounted for 21 percent of all seafood caught in the Lower 48. In 2003, expenditures related to wildlife watching in Louisiana pulled in $175 million. Recreational fishing reels in $895 million to $1.2 billion a year.

Clearly, Louisiana's coastline is an economic engine unto itself. Yet, between 1990 and 2000, Louisiana lost wetlands at the rate of one football field every 38 minutes.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, striking back to back in 2005, brought catastrophic coastal damage. Images from the storms were watched worldwide and drew much attention to the Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana. A post-hurricane spike in oil and gas prices drove the point home.

"One-hundred-fifty-billion dollars has been spent on the recovery, and in some places not much has changed," Graves tells the visitors. "Eighty to 90 percent of [those] dollars, 80 to 90 percent of [those] lives could have been saved with preventative measures of about $8 to $10 billion."

The room falls silent.

'Before Katrina and Rita, no one was really paying attention beyond the coastal regions," says Louisiana state Sen. Reggie Dupre, D-Houma, whose district includes Port Fourchon, the fastest-growing oil development district in the country. Dupre's district also has the nation's worst coastal loss rate.

Dupre reminds the visitors that, after the hurricanes, with much of Louisiana's oil and gas infrastructure shut down, gas prices nationwide jumped $1 per gallon. "The fact that we're having $130 to $140 a barrel and $4 per gallon gasoline prices [today] is making everyone realize that we need to get as independent as possible on energy in this country."

Along with state Senate President Joel T. Chaisson II, Dupre leads the wetlands flyover tour, co-sponsored by the state, the America's Wetland Foundation and the National Guard. The intention? To give lawmakers from other states a glimpse of Louisiana's crumbling "energy coast." Lawmakers from as far away as Puerto Rico, New Hampshire and Alaska climb aboard for a bird's-eye view of the watery coastline. In many places, it's more water than coast.

From the air, they tour a portion of the 1,900 square miles of submerged coastal Louisiana. They learn that 1.7 miles of marshland will reduce the elevation of storm surge by about a foot. Cypress and tupelo forests also have huge buffering effects: the trees capture energy and hold floodwaters. Over the years, man-made changes to the natural hydrology of the Mississippi River and the coastal region have destroyed once-extensive coastal forests, prairies and marshes. To date, Louisiana's land loss equals an area the size of Delaware — and it's growing.

"This makes me more sympathetic to my friends in Louisiana," says Rep. John Grange a Republican from Kansas. "During Katrina, you saw human suffering, but you didn't see the ecological impact like we did today."

Back on the ground, it's evident that the effects of oil and gas pipelines and transportation canals — watery highways of saltwater intrusion into now-devastated fresh-water ecosystems — have made an impact on the group. Rep. Carl Holmes, another Kansas Republican, expresses sympathy: "In my area, we drill a lot for oil, too. Saltwater migration affects wildlife, wetlands, commerce it all goes together."

"If we had those buffers below Houma, we would not have those problems that we did for Katrina," Dupre says. Facing little or no natural impediments, Katrina and Rita plowed easily into coastal Louisiana, wreaking havoc on plants, animals, people and infrastructure — along the coast and far inland.

Beyond its capacity to protect coastal areas from storms, to protect oil and gas infrastructure and to provide waterways for the nation's commerce — and despite its fragile condition — Louisiana's wetlands remain a tremendous asset. "America's energy coast" is also a nursery for America's second-largest flyway, providing a resting, feeding and nesting ground for almost 2 million migratory birds.

Louisiana's wetlands offer something for just about everyone in America to love, yet it has never been a national priority.

Levee building, logging, oil and gas canals, transportation canals, agriculture and development all had a hand in the destruction of Louisiana's deltaic coast. Coastal restoration efforts have had several starts, first in 1969 when Texas and New Mexico wanted to divert a major part of the river because they feared they were running out of water.

Dr. Sherwood Gagliano, CEO of the Baton Rouge-based Coastal Environments, Inc. and a veteran advocate for the Louisiana coast, says that fear of losing a third of the river provided the impetus for assessing the potential consequences of that action. "The basic assumption was that the land of coastal Louisiana is a gift of the Mississippi River and all of its sediment. So if you take a third of it away, what will happen with the land?" Gagliano says. "And the conventional wisdom at the time was that the delta had been building land for 5,000 years, and it was still merrily building land and everything was cool."

Gagliano spent the next five years working under contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in conjunction with Louisiana State University, examining the potential consequence of diverting the river. What the studies found was astonishing.

"The state was losing land at a clip of about 16 square miles per year," Gagliano says. That work was done without GPS or computer technology; researchers later estimated that Louisiana's coastal land loss probably peaked between the mid-1960s and early 1970s — at more than 40 square miles a year. Those studies sparked an interest in coastal ecology.

'That was the year, 1969, that the National Environmental Policy Act passed, and a couple of years later the president issued a couple of executive orders protecting the nation's wetlands — and we were off on the environmental movement," Gagliano recalls.

Over the next four decades, studies and plans followed, but very little action.

Prior to recent developments, Gagliano and many others expressed concern about the state's lack of action. "I've been working through this since 1969," Gagliano said in July. "I think we've had clear definitions of the problem since the mid-1970s, and certainly by the early 1990s. Other than a commitment to close MR-GO (the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet), we really haven't launched any major, regional-type projects."

In recent months, the state has tried to move into the "implementation" stage of coastal restoration. Lawmakers dedicated $300 million from the state's latest $1.2 billion budget surplus to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). But that money is to be divided between coastal restoration and levee projects.

Then, earlier this month, the state caught a huge break: President Bush used his authority to give Louisiana 30 years — rather than the three years initially mandated by Congress — to put up its 30 percent share of the cost of building levees for flood protection across the southern reaches of the state. That will free up hundreds of millions of dollars for coastal restoration efforts in the next decade.

With good news from the White House in hand, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced on Aug. 13 the state's plans for spending more than $1 billion on a variety of coastal restoration and hurricane protection projects, including $130 million to expedite completion for 100-year levees in the New Orleans area. Drawing from multiple state sources, the billion-dollar sum represents the largest investment in coastal resuscitation projects in the state's history. CPRA spokesmen Chris Macaluso says the state anticipates that funds for the coast will continue to flow in the coming years.

According to Jindal, the billion-dollar backing will support projects that provide coastal buffers needed to improve hurricane protection levees already under construction and funds to advance hurricane protection efforts in every coastal parish in the state. Though the state has a long way to go before it can claim to have saved the coast — at a cost estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars — the recent funding will jumpstart the effort.

"This is clearly an expression of a sense of urgency," Gagliano says. "It's a major commitment from the state. The governor is clearly in support of restoring the coast."

Mark Davis, director of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy and former executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, approaches Jindal's announcement cautiously. "If it is a down payment on a restored coast and truly integrated storm protection, then it will be remembered as historic," he says. "If it is a one-time thing and is spent on uncoordinated projects, it will be just an expensive missed opportunity. It is everyone's business to make sure that isn't the case."

Elsewhere, Bush's support for expanded offshore drilling added momentum to a working accord put forth by America's Energy Coast (AEC), a four-state coalition that seeks federal funding and policy changes to address the threats facing the Gulf region. Established in 2007 by America's Wetland Foundation, the AEC defines "America's Energy Coast" as Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama — the four Gulf states that allow offshore oil and gas drilling.

AEC recently unveiled a working "Accord for Sustainability of America's Energy Coast," which the group hopes to whittle into a more refined action agenda by December. The report outlines four major threats to the Gulf Coast region: coastal erosion in Louisiana; the dead zone, an annual fish-kill area of nutrient-fed hypoxia in the Gulf; the 150 miles of Gulf Intracoastal Waterway at risk from erosion; and Texas beach erosion. The accord's major aims are to protect coastal areas from storms, to protect oil and gas infrastructure and to provide commercial waterways. Mark Hurley, president of Shell Oil and chair of the AEC Industry Council, summarized the group's goals at a recent news conference in Houston: "to achieve energy production and transportation in a sustainable way."

Although AEC is dominated by oil and gas professionals, it also includes members from environmental, wildlife and fishing interests. "We have a lot in common with the people around the table," says Susan Kaderka, National Wildlife Federation director for the Gulf region. "Their future depends on a sustainable and safe ecosystem."

Kaderka believes that the power of the environmental groups is in their participation. "The significance of the accord is in the diversity of groups involved in it. That doesn't mean we agree on everything, but we're finding out where we do have common ground and we're trying to move forward on that," she says.

By presenting a united regional front, the coalition hopes to carry more clout in Washington. "We've got to begin to define the true requirements and desires of this section of the country," says R. King Milling, chairman of America's Wetland Foundation and chairman of the state's Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority. "With the force of four states and four congressional delegations going to Congress we should be in significantly better shape."

The AEC Accord proposed to spark an important dialogue, one laden with oil voices and weighty with future challenges. According to its member-scientists, one of the group's biggest challenges will be addressing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Americans burn 20 million barrels of oil and gas a day — 25 percent of the world's total consumption — and produce almost a fourth of the world's greenhouse gases. Yet, government estimates show that the U.S. holds only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves.

Whatever your views on climate change, the effects are very real in Louisiana. Soft soils beneath New Orleans are sinking at a rate of 5 millimeters a year. Historically the rate of sea level rise was roughly 2 millimeters a year, but in the last 15 years the rate has almost doubled.

"The effects of climate change appear to be intensifying and are expected to get worse," says Virginia Burkett, a climate change expert and member of the AEC's Ecosystems Vulnerablity Task Force. "If sea level rise doubles, or triples, the rate of coastal submergence will accelerate here." As the sea surface warms and more water vapor accumulates in the air, the heat index is projected to increase across the Gulf Coast, as is the intensity and frequency of hurricanes.

The call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions includes a plan to develop alternative energies. Critics of Louisiana's oil and gas industry claim its leaders have overplayed the role of the state's energy production relative to Americans' fossil fuel habits.

In an attempt to become less dependent on imported fossil fuels, many states have developed portfolios for renewable energy standards, which require that a certain percentage of energy purchased by utility companies be produced from renewable sources such as wind and solar power. Although Louisiana has some of the best wind resources in the country, the state Public Service Commission has not adopted a "renewables" portfolio.

"The key factor is that we are missing leadership, particularly in the PSC," says John Atkeison, director of climate and clean energy programs for the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy. "The PSC does not require Entergy to enter into negotiations for a long-term power purchase agreement. Unless the utility company agrees to buy it, there's no reason to build a wind farm; nobody's going to finance it," says Atkeison.

Burkett's working group is co-chaired by Kaderka and Gary Serio, vice president of safety and environment at Entergy. Burkett says that while the Accord has yet to commit to mitigating climate change, she feels optimistic. "There is a continuing dialogue going on and our working group was tasked with developing some text that would address mitigation in greater detail. So, I'm not at all concerned that this will not happen," says Burkett.

Still, some suspect that oil interests will continue to dominate the AEC's forthcoming action agenda, that oil companies will continue to deny their role in contributing to coastal degradation, and that the state will back the industry. In fiscal year 2008 (which ended June 30), the state collected $1.7 billion in severance taxes and royalties, almost all of it from the oil and gas industry.

"Historically, Louisiana has had boom and bust cycles. We're still an oil and gas state," says Greg Albrecht, chief economist with the state's Legislative Fiscal Office.

Aaron Viles, campaign director of the Gulf Restoration Network, says total honesty would be a better policy. "We need to be very real and upfront in acknowledging the environmental impacts of oil and gas developments. There's an inherent inconsistency that everywhere outside of Louisiana is painfully obvious, but inside Louisiana the prevailing mindset is that being America's Energy Coast is only a good thing," says Viles.

Science members of the AEC identify "human activity that has accompanied 90 percent of this country's oil and gas development" — canals for energy industry transportation across marshes, tank batteries, onshore support facilities, some 20,000 miles of pipelines and spill banks, etc. — as one of the key problems confronting the central Gulf Coast.

From the air and in full view of the group of visiting lawmakers, remnants of the oil and gas industry in Louisiana are obvious. Just how much damage does the industry wreak on the coast?

Advocates for the coast have repeatedly called on the oil and gas industry to cough up the cash and clean up its mess here.

"In many ways it doesn't matter if dredging has caused 30 or 90 percent of the land loss, because either is a rationale for doing something about their impacts — and basically little of anything is being done to address the impacts of oil and gas canals," says Dr. Eugene Turner, director of the Coastal Ecology Institute at LSU.

Milling adds that Washington bears some responsibility as well. "They spend maybe hundreds of millions of dollars all over the world taking care of ecosystems, and we've got one in our backyard that is dying," he says. "What I'm interested in, and what the state is interested in, is: How do we fix it?"

The coastline of Louisiana is disappearing at an alarming rate, as is evident in these photos taken on the eastern coastline of the state. The top photo was taken in 1984, and the bottom was taken from the same vantage point in 2007. The arrows on the photos provide points of reference for items that were on land in '84, but now are a distance from the shoreline.
  • The coastline of Louisiana is disappearing at an alarming rate, as is evident in these photos taken on the eastern coastline of the state. The top photo was taken in 1984, and the bottom was taken from the same vantage point in 2007. The arrows on the photos provide points of reference for items that were on land in '84, but now are a distance from the shoreline.

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