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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Posts Tagged ‘Coastal Conservation Conversation’

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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