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Archive for October, 2014

Nathaniel Rich on the “National Crisis” of Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

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“I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage.” —Nathaniel Rich

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In “Behind the Cover Story,” Rachel Nolan speaks with Nathaniel Rich, a New Orleans resident and author of last Sunday’s powerful and authoritative New York Times Magazine cover story “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”—about how he came to write the piece, and possible consequences if the lawsuit fails . . .

Along the way, Rich hails The Lens of New Orleans as “a fantastic local investigative news site.” We could not agree more. 

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Behind the Cover Story: Nathaniel Rich on the Legal Battle Over Louisiana’s Land Loss

You have lived in New Orleans for some time now. How did you first become aware of the massive land loss in Louisiana?

I was ignorant about coastal land loss before I moved to New Orleans four years ago, but that changed quickly. Louisianians have known about the loss of their wetlands for decades, but relatively few people outside the state seem to be aware of the problem or its scope. This is disturbing because it is a national crisis, endangering the existence of New Orleans as well as a large percentage of our energy infrastructure and shipping trade. It’s not just nature lovers who should be concerned. Anyone who cares about energy independence, trade or national security should be concerned.

Awareness of the issue is growing, however. Several excellent reports have been published in the last few weeks. One was published through a partnership between ProPublica and The Lens, a fantastic local investigative news site. Called “Losing Ground,” it’s a graphic representation of coastal land loss. Another is “Louisiana Loses Its Boot,” by Brett Anderson, published in Medium. Anderson makes the case for a new official state map that would reflect Louisiana’s changing shape.

How did you first hear about this lawsuit, and come to think that John Barry might be interesting to write about?

nathanielrichphoto-articleInline-v2I learned about it when Barry announced the lawsuit at a press conference last July. I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage, but it hasn’t come close to getting the attention of, say, the Keystone pipeline.

Barry is a true obsessive, and I’m drawn to writing about obsession. I was fascinated to see a writer abandon a successful writing career, at least temporarily, in order to devote himself to a cause. In my experience, writers are happiest when they are alone in a small room with their work, so Barry’s decision to sue 97 oil and gas companies seemed to me especially radical, and indicative of an unusual personal commitment.

Oil and gas companies conceded responsibility for 36 percent of the land loss. Why don’t the companies pay for 36 percent of the damage to the coast—at the very least as a P.R. move?

Because nobody is making them. The oil and gas industry did not become the most profitable industry in the history of human civilization by accident. Why would an oil company volunteer to donate millions or billions of dollars when nobody is requiring them to? P.R. campaigns come a lot cheaper than that. Shareholders wouldn’t stand for it. Besides, every oil company has a different level of liability. You need some authority to determine how much each company owes. That’s what the lawsuit intends to do.

Who or what is responsible for the rest of the lost land?

Levees, primarily, mostly those built on the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers. The levees prevent flooding, which deposits sediment into the marshes and builds land. Of course without levees you couldn’t have cities in southern Louisiana. This is one reason it’s difficult for the state to press the oil and gas industry for reparations. Historically, Louisiana has pushed aggressively for the construction of levees, which may be an even greater cause of land loss than the canals and wells dredged by the industry. Thousands of dams built on the Mississippi’s tributaries, which reduce the river’s sediment load, are another factor. Then you have global warming. The land is sinking, and the sea is rising. It’s a pitiful combination.

If this lawsuit fails, what does the future look like for Louisiana?

If the Coastal Master Plan is not fully funded, the coast as we know it will be gone. Over the next century the towns and cities will be abandoned. New Orleans, if it continues to exist, will be an island. The coast might be doomed regardless, but the Master Plan at least gives it a fighting chance.

What might this whole fight in Louisiana mean for Bobby Jindal’s presidential ambitions?

I’m not a political analyst, so I couldn’t speculate with any authority about the next presidential election. Nearly everybody I interviewed in Louisiana, however, believed that Jindal’s extreme hostility to the lawsuit was motivated, at least partially, by his national political ambitions. He is in his final term as governor, after all, and he won’t likely run for state office again. Politically he no longer has much to gain, or lose, in Louisiana. But if he wants to run for president, he will need to win the support of big money. The defendants in the levee-board lawsuit include the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil—three of the Republican Party’s top donors. As William Goldman wrote: Follow the money.

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Read “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine (10/5/2014).

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 Photo of Nathaniel Rich by Meredith Angelson for The New York Times.

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Highlights from “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” in The New York Times Magazine

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYT“The idea of making the industry live up to its legal responsibility is not going to die.”John M. Barry

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 6, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story titled “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.” Aside from the cover of Time, a story does not get much more prominent coverage than a cover article in the magazine of The New York Times. Nathaniel Rich, who has written intelligently and sensitively about New Orleans (see here and here), now gives an overview of the environmental reasons why the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) last July filed a suit against nearly 100 oil and gas corporations for failing to honor the terms of their licenses to do business in the wetlands of Louisiana and have caused catastrophic environmental damage to the state’s land. Rich also profiles the leader of that lawsuit, author and environmental activist John M. Barry, who was until recently the vice president of SLFPA-E, and the unprecedented efforts of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, with the help of compliant or fearful legislators, to kill the lawsuit in the state legislature rather than let it work its way through the courts.

Read All About It—And Restore Louisiana Now

Following are some highlights from “Waterworld.” We hope you will forward this post, or the article itself, and also check out John Barry’s new foundation, Restore Louisiana Now. We also urge you to join us in pressing the Jindal administration and the Louisiana state representatives to support efforts to make the oil and gas industry pay for the damage it has done and to restore the critical wetlands that act as a buffer against hurricane storm surge. Scientists say about every 2.5 square miles of wetlands absorbs a foot of storm surge. The oil and gas industry has already conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss—but they have not paid for damages. Jindal’s plan, apparently, is to let industry off the hook and to let the Coastal Master Plan for restoration to fall on the taxpayers—a curious position for an anti-tax politician.

This politically ambitious governor, who imagines he has a chance at becoming president of the United States, continues in his efforts to bend the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (intended to be politically independent) to his will. The lawsuit’s attorney has requested that a federal judge rule on the constitutionality of a controversial bill, pushed for and eagerly signed by Jindal, that would kill the lawsuit. The judge will hear that motion, along with motions filed by oil companies to dismiss the suit, on Nov. 12.

From “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”

Each hour, Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of every football stadium in the N.F.L. Were this rate of land loss applied to New York, Central Park would disappear in a month. Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half. The last of Brooklyn would dissolve four years later. New Yorkers would notice this kind of land loss. The world would notice this kind of land loss. But the hemorrhaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands has gone largely unremarked upon beyond state borders. This is surprising, because the wetlands, apart from their unique ecological significance and astounding beauty, buffer the impact of hurricanes that threaten not just New Orleans but also the port of South Louisiana, the nation’s largest; just under 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves; a quarter of its natural-gas supply; a fifth of its oil-refining capacity; and the gateway to its internal waterway system. The attenuation of Louisiana, like any environmental disaster carried beyond a certain point, is a national-security threat.

Canals dredged by the energy industry south of Lafitte.The land loss is swiftly reversing the process by which the state was built. As the Mississippi shifted its course over the millenniums, spraying like a loose garden hose, it deposited sand and silt in a wide arc. This sediment first settled into marsh and later thickened into solid land. But what took 7,000 years to create has been nearly destroyed in the last 85. . . .

Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence. The industry has also incised 10,000 linear miles of pipelines, which connect the wells to processing facilities; and canals, which allow ships to enter the marsh from the sea. Over time, as seawater eats away at the roots of the adjacent marsh, the canals expand. By its own estimate, the oil and gas industry concedes that it has caused 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana. . . .

A better analogy than disappearing football fields has been proposed by the historian John M. Barry, who has lived in the French Quarter on and off since 1972. Barry likens the marsh to a block of ice. The reduction of sediment in the Mississippi, the construction of levees and the oil and gas wells “created a situation akin to taking the block of ice out of the freezer, so it begins to melt.” Dredging canals and pipelines “is akin to stabbing that block of ice with an ice pick.”

The oil and gas industry has extracted about $470 billion in natural resources from the state in the last two decades, with the tacit blessing of the federal and state governments and without significant opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas is, after all, Louisiana’s leading industry, responsible for around a billion dollars in annual tax revenue. Last year, industry executives had reason to be surprised, then, when they were asked to pay damages. The request came in the form of the most ambitious, wide-ranging environmental lawsuit in the history of the United States. . . .

When John Barry met with Congressman Bobby Jindal (2006): In Washington, where Barry lives for part of the year, he met with a freshman representative from the state’s First Congressional District, which includes much of southeastern Louisiana: Bobby Jindal. He begged Jindal to demand action from the White House [following Hurricane Katrina]. New Orleans couldn’t count on its mayor, or on the governor, he said; the city needed a hero on Capitol Hill. After speaking for two hours, Barry recalled, Jindal said that taking a leadership position on Hurricane Katrina “didn’t fit his timing for running for governor.” (Jindal, who declined to comment for this article, was elected governor in 2007.) “I left in total disgust,” Barry said. . . .

The state did have a plan in place to rebuild the barrier islands and coastal wetlands. Originally published in 2007 and revised in 2012, the so-called Coastal Master Plan was endorsed by scientists, as well as the oil and gas industry. . . . The state, however, had not figured out how it was going to finance the Coastal Master Plan. The main source of funding would be the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill lawsuits, which is expected to be as much as $20 billion. That would leave about $30 billion.

Barry believed that other oil and gas companies should also contribute. His argument was simple: Because the industry conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss, it should pay its part: $18 billion would be a start.

near Myrtle Grove, La.[Barry] knew that nearly every company that has operated in the marshes since the 1920s has used permits obliging them to maintain and repair any environmental damage it caused. In 1980, Louisiana began adhering to a federal law that required companies operating in the marsh—a list that includes ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, Chevron and Koch Industries—to restore “as near as practicable to their original condition” any canals they dredge. After consulting with legal experts, Barry became convinced that most companies never filled in their canals and that the state had failed to enforce the law. In fact, many of the projects listed in the Coastal Master Plan called for plugging canals that should have been restored years ago. . . .

“Louisianians who make money in oil buy politicians, or pieces of politicians, as Kentuckians in the same happy situation buy racehorses. Oil gets into politics, and politicians, making money in office, get into oil. The state slithers around it.” These sentences, written by A. J. Liebling in 1960 at the dawn of the deep-water offshore-drilling era, seem quaint when read today. Louisiana no longer slithers in oil; it drowns in it. It is also high on natural gas, thanks to the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing. And at some point along the way, the state, which has the oil and gas, ceded political control to the industry, which needs the oil and gas. . . .

One peculiarity about the fight over the lawsuit is that few industries are in greater need of coastal restoration than oil and gas. The next major hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will put at risk billions of dollars of industry infrastructure—refineries, oil tanks, terminals and pipelines. This is why the industry endorsed the Coastal Master Plan. A second oddity is that Jindal, a hero of the anti-tax faction of the national Republican Party, who last year tried to eliminate the state’s corporate and income taxes, has now put himself in the position of allowing the largest single bill facing his state—for the balance of the Coastal Master Plan—to fall almost entirely upon taxpayers.

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Check out Restore Louisiana Now, and see the video  from the Coastal Conservation Conversation held at Loyola University on August 20 (highlights video clips here). Thanks to Ms. Anne Mueller of The Lens, a major sponsor of the Conversation.

Also, see Nathaniel Rich’s new piece in The New Republic, “Louisiana Has a Wild Plan to Save Itself from Global Warming (too bad the state is being destroyed from within),” and his review of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books, “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Land Loss in 1984 compared with 2014

1984–2014

 

Map source: Jamon Van Den Hoek, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Map note: Land areas are derived from Landsat imagery. Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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Louisiana’s Vanishing Wetlands and “Most Ambitious” Enviro Lawsuit Featured in New York Times Magazine

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

John BarryThis weekend you’ll want to go to your nearest newsstand and buy a copy of the Sunday New York Times and go straight to the Magazine for an article of major importance. The cover shows an oil industry “shortcut” canal sliced through Louisiana’s Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, overlaid with the words “Every Hour, an Acre of Louisiana Sinks into the Sea. Who Is to Blame?” The article, by Nathaniel Rich, focuses on the “high-stakes fight [that] has broken out over who is to blame—and who should bear the astronomical cost of restoring the coast” as the Louisiana wetlands continue to vanish into the Gulf of Mexico. Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land. Every day, 50 acres.

Rich spends quality time with John M. Barry (right), the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East that filed an historic lawsuit in July 2013 to force about 100 oil and gas companies to pay for damages to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. (Click here for more about the lawsuit; see also “Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis” on our Environment page.)

We’ll have more to say about this well-written article in the next few days—just wanted to alert you that it’s coming, and to urge you to “read all about it,” and spread the word. Buy the Sunday paper—help keep the presses rolling.

Nathaniel Rich, by the way, a novelist, is the son of New York magazine contributing writer and former New York Times columnist Frank Rich. In July Nathaniel reviewed Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books in a fine piece titled “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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