We can understand if Louisiana environmentalists might turn green with envy. Last month in California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an aggressive agenda to protect that state's environment while conserving energy. Beginning in 2009, lower fuel emissions will be mandated for all vehicles sold in California. Consumer use of hydrogen-fueled cars is already encouraged there, and the state is speeding up its timetable to get more energy from renewable resources such as solar power.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco may not be that aggressive about greening our state, but the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) under her stewardship, along with her support of green priorities in the recent legislative session, has pleasantly surprised local environmentalists who suffered long under former Gov. Mike Foster. "For the first time in eight years, the Department of Environmental Quality had a positive presence at the Legislature," says Mary Lee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN).
The biggest environmental issue during the session concerned the permitting processes for proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities offshore in the Gulf of Mexico ("Cold Reception," March 15, 2005). Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, authored a strong legislative resolution (SCR 117) calling for a stricter review of the LNG permitting process. Nationally, demand for natural gas is expected to increase by 25 percent in the next 10 years. However, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries worries that "open-loop" LNG terminals would harm major Gulf fisheries. Blanco concurs, saying she will only support offshore LNG terminals that use a "closed-loop" system -- because that system has "negligible impacts to marine life." The governors of Mississippi and Alabama have joined Blanco in opposing open-loop LNGs. "Passage of that resolution was important because it was the first time we had ever said 'No' to the oil industry," says Charlie Smith, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Charter Boat Association and a staunch opponent of open-loop LNGs.
The fight is just beginning, however. Closed-loop LNGs, which are required on the East and West coasts, mean higher operating costs for oil companies. At 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, at the Hyatt Regency hotel near the Superdome, the Coast Guard and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will hold public hearings on an application by Freeport McMoRan for an open-loop system at the mouth of the Mississippi River. We urge our readers to tell federal regulators to "close the loop" on LNGs.
On other environmental and legislative fronts:
• State Rep. N.J. Damico, D-Marrero, chair of the House Environmental Committee, authored a resolution (HCR 51) that urges DEQ to develop a plan to reduce human exposure to mercury poisoning, including contamination of fish. The House wisely adopted the measure.
• Blanco signed into law a long-overdue bill by Sen. Clo Fontenot, R-Baton Rouge, providing tougher criminal penalties for polluters. Act 229 increases violations of state discharge laws from misdemeanors to felonies. "It gives the criminal investigation division of DEQ some teeth," says Kathy Wascomb, legislative liaison for Citizens for a Clean Environment.
• The Alliance for Affordable Energy, an energy watchdog group, successfully opposed HB 381 by Rep. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur. Johns' bill would have restricted citizens' and municipalities' ability to sue public utilities to recover overcharges.
• Environmentalists failed to defeat a bill they say will allow industry to deplete the Sparta underground aquifer, which provides drinking water for 19 parishes in northern Louisiana. HB 388 by James R. Fannin, D-Jonesboro, softened regulatory language amid concerns that industries might be discouraged from relocating to the area. Blanco, meanwhile, has appointed a state groundwater commission to monitor use of underground aquifers. The effect of Fannin's bill bears watching.
• The state Senate dismayed environmentalists by approving a resolution by Sen. Ken Smith, D-Winnfield (SCR 71), asking Congress to limit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' authority over the coastal forest ("Log Jam," June 21). Smith's resolution aims to prevent the Corps from using its powers to limit the cutting of cypress trees, which environmentalists say have little chance of regenerating.
• Thanks to separate bills approved by lawmakers, there are now commissions in place to develop up to 14 separate reservoirs around the state using a total of $43 million in taxpayer-financed state bond money. Proponents say the man-made lakes are economic development projects that will spur retirement communities and recreation districts. Environmentalists fear depletion of state groundwater. "We are asking that the projects be delayed so that we can have a statewide survey of our groundwater situation and water needs," says Leslie March, spokesperson for the Delta chapter of the Sierra Club. Environmentalists also are demanding economic forecasts for the 14 man-made lakes to show the benefits to taxpayers from the competing projects. We agree that the forecasts are a reasonable request.
Despite some disappointments, environmentalists enjoyed some key victories. "The environmental community is actually making steps forward, rather than always being on the defensive," says activist Wascomb. We welcome the sight of a governor and DEQ officials speaking out on behalf of pro-environment legislation -- and finally striving to balance the environmental and economic needs of our state.