Levees Not War
Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Posts Tagged ‘coastal restoration’

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

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Waterworld.NYTM.cover

“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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Questions for Coastal Conservation Conversation Panel: Tonight, Aug. 20

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

RosieRiveterExperts to Discuss How to Pay for Massive Coastal Restoration Effort

We are raising our hands because we have a few questions for the distinguished panelists at the Coastal Conservation Conversation tonight, Aug. 20, at Loyola University in New Orleans (6:00–8:00 Central Standard Time, 7:00 Eastern). Click here for a campus map. Parking is available in the neighborhood and in the West Road parking garage.

The conversation will be live-streamed.

Click here to watch the talk.

Bob Marshall at The Lens reports that this morning, “the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy released a report estimating that the state’s $50 billion Master Plan for the Coast will end up costing more than $100 billion over its 50-year time frame. It arrives at that figure by adjusting for inflation over 50 years and adding the $6.2 billion cost of the Urban Water Plan for New Orleans, which proposes innovative water management techniques within the city.”

The panelists discussing how the plan can be paid for will be Mark Davis, Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy  •  John Driscoll, Corporate Planning Resources  •  Kyle Graham, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority  •  Douglas J. Meffert, Audubon Louisiana/National Audubon Society  •  Steve Murchie, Gulf Restoration Network  •  Courtney Taylor, Environmental Defense Fund. The moderator will be John Snell of WVUE/Fox 8.  

Marshall adds, “The Tulane institute says the doubling in projected cost shouldn’t deter coastal restoration, noting that it cost nearly $100 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. ‘Knowing what is at stake and coming to terms with the true costs of saving coastal Louisiana are prerequisites for a robust civic conversation about how best to finance it.’ ”

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Questions for the Panelists:

Ms. Anne Mueller, Development Director of The Lens, was kind enough to offer to forward questions to the panelists, so we came up with the following, in descending order of importance (though we think they’re all important). If you have questions, you can write to Anne at <amueller@TheLensNola.org> or via The Lens’s staff contact page.

The first thing we would say to the panelists is “Thank You for coming and sharing your expertise. We owe you, and we’re listening. And please come again!” 

(1)  In a time when federal funding is not likely from a U.S. Congress in which fiscal conservative / Tea Party representatives seem not to want to allocate any further funding for any purpose, but only to cut back, how can we approach members of Congress—what persuasive arguments can we make that this environmental issue is critical and needs federal assistance? (“National Security Begins at Home.”) Private contributions alone will not suffice.

(2)  Even if Louisiana were to be offered federal funding to help with coastal restoration (please!), what’s to stop Gov. Jindal from once again making a political show of refusing to accept federal monies? He has done this time and again, to the state’s detriment (and we’ve seen his actions against the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East lawsuit).

(3)  re: private sources of funding: How can environmental leaders / organizers (such as the panelists and their colleagues) and rank-and-file activists appeal to CEOs and other business executives (esp. of oil and gas / energy companies) to please help contribute funding to coastal restoration? Can they help pay for advertising / public service announcements, for example? We “little people” are already doing about all we can think to do. What does it take to get them to help more? (Our friend Mark Davis will say we need to show them what we’re doing, that it’s important to us, etc. True, but what else?)

(4)  How can the good people of Louisiana, who are not known for environmental activism, get our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens to care and speak up about Louisiana’s coastal predicament? (Public service announcements on TV and radio by Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, for example, might help, right?)

(5)  For The Lens and organizers: Were representatives from the staffs of Gov. Jindal and senators Landrieu and Vitter and Congressman Scalise invited to this event? If not, why not? All possible high elected officials should be invited, or at least notified—Mayor Landrieu’s office, too. (We admit, this question only occurred to us this morning.)

Again, we are grateful to The Lens and the Mississippi River Delta Coalition for organizing this important event, and we thank the following sponsors: The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, the National Wildlife Federation, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and the Audubon Society Louisiana.

See the event’s Facebook page here.

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Further Reading

800px-Mississippi_Delta_IRSee our previous post about the Coastal Conservation Conversation below.

Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis: To learn more about Louisiana’s environmental predicament, which has repercussions for the entire United States, see “Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis” on our Environment & Ecology page.

Other LNW posts about Louisiana’s coastal crisis: 

Honoré Speaks for La. Flood Protection Authority Lawsuit Against Big Oil (9/12/13)

Louisiana Flood Protection Agency Sues Big Oil to Repair Wetlands (7/25/13)

Conservatives, Please Help Conserve Louisiana’s Coast (10/3/11)

When Harry Met a Cover-Up: Shearer Talks about “The Big Uneasy” (10/14/10)

Martha Serpas: Our Life, Between Sea and Oil (7/11/10) : reprint of a New York Times op-ed

BP Oilpocalypse Threatens New Orleans’s Very Existence (5/14/10)

BP Celebrates Earth Day with Bonfire, Oil Spill: Well Leaks 210,000 Gallons a Day into Gulf of Mexico (4/26/10)

Coastal Conservation Corps: A New CCC for Coastal Restoration—and Jobs (11/18/09)

And more! Click here.

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An unforgettable scene in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) showed former Attorney General John Ashcroft singing “Let the Eagle Soar.” We say “Let the Pelican Soar . . . and soar some more.”

pelican (big bird)

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Join Louisiana’s Most Important Conversation: Aug. 20 at Loyola University

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

A Coastal Conservation Conversation

CCCThe Lens, with sponsorship from the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, is hosting a panel discussion—a Coastal Conservation Conversation—on the financing of the $50 billion master plan for coastal restoration at Loyola University, Wednesday, Aug. 20 from 6 to 8 p.m., in room 114 Miller Hall. (The title of the event is admittedly not dyslexic-friendly; just think CCC.)

The experts on the panel will be:

Mark Davis, Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy  •  John Driscoll, Corporate Planning Resources  •  Kyle Graham, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority  •  Douglas J. Meffert, Audubon Louisiana/National Audubon Society  •  Steve Murchie, Gulf Restoration Network

The discussion will be moderated by John Snell of WVUE/Fox 8.

(Click here for a campus map, and here for the event’s Facebook page.)

What Is Coastal Restoration and Why Is It Needed?

microbewiki.Wetlands_lossEvery year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land—50 acres every day. About 1,900 square miles have disappeared in the past century—more than 25 times the land area of Washington, D.C.—and the erosion is accelerating. Katrina tore away four years’ worth of land loss—about 100 square miles—in only a few hours. The land loss is not only killing species of wildlife, but is taking away the buffer that protects human settlements such as the city of New Orleans and Acadiana—Cajun country—from hurricanes and the encroaching Gulf of Mexico. Valuable oil and gas and shipping infrastructure are also endangered, exposed to violent storms. Experts say if a serious, all-hands-on-deck, fully-funded federal effort is not mounted within the next five to ten years, New Orleans and Acadiana will be lost.

Wetlands protect human settlements from hurricane storm surges, which can rise as high as 25 feet. Every 2.5 to 4 miles of wetlands reduce hurricane storm surges by about a foot; measured another way, each mile of marsh reduces storm surges by 3 to 9 inches. Metro New Orleans, home to about 1.5 million, is now protected by a buffer no more than about 20 miles of wetlands.

Coastal restoration—replacing the eroded soil and wetlands—can be done in many ways, as the panel will explain, but among the methods being attempted are diversions of sediment-rich water from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers. Diversions at strategic openings, such as the ones at Caernarvon and Davis Pond, allow river water to spread across the wetlands and replenish the soil. Other methods are vegetation plantings (as shown in the photo below, left), hydrologic restoration, marsh creation, shoreline protection, sediment trapping, and stabilization of barrier islands. All are being implemented, but only to a small, insufficient degree.

What Will They Be Talking About?

We spoke with Mark Davis of Tulane’s Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy to ask about the focus of the Coastal Conservation Conversation. Davis, former director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, says there are many good, workable plans that have been drawn up over the years; the critical need now is to identify how exactly the implementation will be funded. “For one thing, the $50 billion figure you’ve heard about does not include everything that will be needed. We need to identify what funds we have currently available to draw from, and then where we can get the additional funding. The funding cannot be left to chance,” Davis emphasized. “Considering that nobody wants to pay higher taxes—not individuals and not businesses—where will the money come from? Bonds won’t do the trick.”

noaaprotects_volunteersDavis stressed that the often-heard assertion that “they owe it to us”—meaning Big Oil owes Louisiana the money to repair damages from oil exploration—doesn’t get us very far. If that is true, how are you going to get that money? How are you going to convince the companies to help pay for restoration? We all need to have some “skin in the game,” he said, to make elected officials and CEOs take our claims seriously. Environmental groups and activists must be able to demonstrate what we are doing, what we ourselves are willing to pay and to do, with time and roll-up-your-sleeves efforts. This could involve talking to neighbors, organizing town hall meet-ups, generating public will and action to press on elected officials and businesses, and volunteering for plantings and other restoration efforts.

For a simple example, Davis said, we’re willing to spend a few dollars more for bottled water to make sure we have clean, safe drinking water. Expand it out from there: what else are we willing to pay for to ensure that the state will have restored wetlands that preserve wildlife and hunting and fishing areas and keep a buffer between us and the hurricane storm surge?

“We shouldn’t delude ourselves about what we’re facing,” Davis said. “There is an area between fatalism and acceptance of doom. We have not yet become victims of inevitable change. We have tools here that we can work with.”

“Louisiana has to realize that other parts of the United States are discovering they need assistance, local and federal, for storm protection and rebuilding—Florida especially and now, after Hurricane Sandy (2012), New York and New Jersey, too. We have to have a practical financial plan. This is what the Coastal Conversation is about.”

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In addition to The Lens and the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, the Coastal Conservation Conversation is being sponsored by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, the National Wildlife Federation, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and the Audubon Society Louisiana. See the event’s Facebook page here.

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Honoreleadership-207x300“We have a hard task, but through the power of connectivity, we can succeed. In a democracy, you can turn the situation around. . . . We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to use our voice to influence our legislators. . . . This is our time. This is a great cause. How are you going to get your nieces and nephews and neighbors involved? The way we’re going in the state of Louisiana, this place will not be fit to live in.”

Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, keynote address on leadership and environmental justice, Rising Tide conference, New Orleans, Sept. 14, 2013

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LaCoast.ca1950

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Land-loss maps from MicrobeWiki; planting photo by NOAA; photo of oil/gas pipeline canals cutting through Louisiana wetlands, 2010, from Getty Images via Bloomberg; bottom map of Louisiana by U.S. Geological Survey circa 1950.

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Louisiana Flood Protection Agency Sues Big Oil to Repair Wetlands

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

louisiana-coast
Historic case is compared to 1990s litigation against Big Tobacco

About 100 oil and gas companies must pay to repair the Louisiana wetlands damaged by a century of oil exploration and extraction, according to a lawsuit filed July 24 in civil district court in Orleans Parish by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East. The Authority (SLFPA-E) was established by the Louisiana legislature in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina to ensure the integrity of the state’s flood risk management systems.

John M. Barry, vice president of SLFPA-E (and the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America [1998]), said:

“With this lawsuit, the Authority is carrying out its mandate to help protect southern Louisiana by strengthening our first line of defense against catastrophic flooding. That first defensive perimeter is of course the buffer of land and marsh that cuts down hurricane storm surge before it reaches the levees. . . . The industry recognizes that it is responsible for a significant part of the problem. We want energy companies to fix the part of the problem they caused—and which they promised to address. We want them to do what they said they’d do.”

map-canals-lawsuit-2jpg-7d45582bb7eb802c

The suit has been denounced by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who said in a statement that the Authority has “overstepped its authority.” The governor asserted, “We’re not going to allow a single levee board that has been hijacked by a group of trial lawyers to determine flood protection, coastal restoration and economic repercussions for the entire state of Louisiana.”

The state’s attorney general, Buddy Caldwell, however, has authorized SLFPA-E to proceed in filing its suit.

An attorney for the Authority, Gladstone N. Jones III, has successfully brought suit against Big Oil firms in the past. He told Clancy Dubos of Gambit that the suit has the potential to be bigger than the ongoing BP litigation, and, according to The New York Times, Jones said the plaintiffs are seeking damages equal to “many billions of dollars. Many, many billions of dollars.” Dubos writes, “The case ultimately could seek environmental recovery for all oil and gas activity along Louisiana’s coast. If that happens, this case will be to Big Oil what the Tobacco Litigation was to that industry: a game-changer.” (See Further Reading below.)

The lawsuit asserts that the Authority is obligated by law to restore Louisiana’s coastal land areas, and charges that oil, gas, and pipeline companies that have cut at least 10,000 miles of oil and gas canals and pipelines have damaged the state’s environmental buffer zones that formerly protected the state from storm surge and flooding. As experienced in recent hurricanes, Southeastern Louisiana has been rendered vulnerable to frequent and often catastrophic flooding.

Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land—50 acres every day.

1980–2007

Click the map or here to go to a Lens article about the lawsuit and a slide show of the proliferation of 230,000 oil and gas wells in Louisiana between 1901 and 2007.

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Wetlands protect human settlements from hurricane storm surges, which can rise as high as 25 feet. Every 2.5 to 4 miles of wetlands reduce hurricane storm surges by about a foot; measured another way, each mile of marsh reduces storm surges by 3 to 9 inches. Metro New Orleans, home to about 1.5 million, is now protected by a buffer no more than about 20 miles of wetlands.

The suit summarizes the environmental significance of coastal wetlands and the consequences of oil exploration (quoting from Gambit and from SLFPA-E’s press release):

•  “Coastal lands are the natural protective buffer without which the levees that protect the cities and towns of southern Louisiana are left exposed to unabated destructive forces. This protective buffer took 6,000 years to form. Yet . . . it has been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime. Hundreds of thousands of acres of the coastal lands that once offered protection to south Louisiana are now gone as a result of oil and gas industry activities. . . .

•  “For nearly a century, the oil and gas industry has continuously and relentlessly traversed, dredged, drilled and extracted in coastal Louisiana. It reaps enormous financial gain by exploiting the resources found there, sharing some of that bounty with the many residents whom it employs. Yet it also ravages Louisiana’s coastal landscape. An extensive network of oil and gas access and pipeline canals slashes the coastline at every angle, functioning as a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction. This canal network injects corrosive saltwater into interior coastal lands, killing vegetation and carrying away mountains of soil. What remains of these coastal lands is so seriously diseased that if nothing is done, it will slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner. . . .

•  “Oil and gas activities continue to transform what was once a stable ecosystem of naturally occurring bayous, small canals, and ditches into an extensive—and expanding—network of large and deep canals that continues to widen due to Defendants’ ongoing failure to maintain this network or restore the ecosystem to its natural state. That canal network continues to introduce increasingly larger volumes of damaging saltwater, at increasingly greater velocity, ever deeper into Louisiana’s coastal landscape and interior wetlands. The increasing intrusion of saltwater stresses the vegetation that holds wetlands together, weakening—and ultimately killing—that vegetation. Thus weakened, the remaining soil is washed away even by minor storms. The canal network thus comprises a highly effective system of coastal landscape degradation. The product of this network is an ecosystem so seriously diseased that its complete demise is inevitable if no action is taken.” [LNW’s emphasis]

Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune reports, “A study conducted by the late University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland in 1996 for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Gas Research Institute concluded that about 36 percent of the wetland loss in southeastern Louisiana between 1932 and 1990 was the result of the direct and indirect effects of actions taken by the oil and gas industry.” By a conservative estimate, since 1932 Louisiana has lost more than 1,900 square miles of coastal lands, equivalent to the state of Delaware, and if the present rate continues, some 700 more square miles of coastal Louisiana are expected to be lost in coming decades.

 

Barataria Bay

 

John Barry told The Lens’s environmental writer Bob Marshall, “No one denies—not even the oil industry—that the canals they dredged helped cause this problem. . . . Now, people will say there are other causes, and we’re not denying that. The levees on the river, obviously, are a major cause. But the federal government built those levees, and they’ve been spending billions of dollars on better flood protection and coastal restoration projects in this area. What we’re saying to the oil companies is, ‘It’s time for you to step up now for the damage you did.’ ”

The Flood Protection Authority’s lawsuit is grounded in long-established legal principles and in state and federal law, such as the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, and the state Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972.

Barry explained to the Times-Picayune that the suit is founded upon three principal legal arguments:

  • Most of the damaging oil, gas and pipeline activities were conducted under federal and state permits that “explicitly require the operators to maintain and restore the canals they dredged,” Barry said. He said the oil and gas industry dredged more than 10,000 miles of canals through the state’s wetlands, which provided pathways for salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to kill fresh and brackish water marshes.
  • The federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 prohibits actions that impair the effectiveness of flood protection levees. “Clearly, increasing storm surge makes a levee less effective,” Barry said.
  • A tenet of civil law called “servitude of drainage” prohibits someone taking actions on property that they own or control that sends more water onto someone else’s property. Again, Barry said, the oil and gas projects clearly focus increased storm surge onto the levee system.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East is being represented in its litigation by the law firms Jones, Swanson, Huddell, and Garrison, LLC, of New Orleans; Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson, LLP, of New Orleans; and Veron, Bice, Palermo & Wilson, LLC, of Lake Charles, La.

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Further Reading

Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East press release

Mark Schleifstein (Times-Picayune), “Historic lawsuit seeks billions in damages from oil, gas, pipeline industries for wetlands losses” (includes PDF of lawsuit + video of John Barry)

Clancy Dubos (Gambit), “Historic lawsuit coming against Big Oil

Bob Marshall (The Lens), “Science to be key factor in lawsuit against oil and gas companies for coastal loss

Mark Schleifstein (Times-Picayune), “East Bank levee authority to file lawsuit Wednesday aimed at getting oil, gas, pipeline firms to restore wetlands and ridges

John Schwartz (New York Times), “Louisiana Agency Sues Dozens of Energy Companies for Damage to Wetlands

National Public Radio, “La. Flood Board Sues Oil Industry Over Wetlands

U.S. Geological Survey, “Wetland Subsidence, Fault Reactivation, and Hydrocarbon Production in the U.S. Gulf Coast Region

Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, “Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast

Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority homepage

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Top photo of oil/gas pipeline canals cutting through Louisiana wetlands, 2010, from Getty Images via Bloomberg; graphic by Dan Swenson for the Times-Picayune; map of oil and gas wells south of New Orleans from The Lens; photograph of Barataria Bay, Louisiana (2011) by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

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Conservatives, Please Help Conserve Louisiana’s Coast

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

What is a conservative after all but one who conserves, one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live?” 

Ronald Reagan, 1984

“Louisiana’s voters must find, nominate and elect conservatives (aka, Republicans) who understand there’s no contradiction in being pro-life, pro-gun, pro-fiscal responsibility and pro-environment. Unless that happens soon, I’m afraid we’ll be moving coastal communities within the next decade.” 

Bob Marshall, Times-Picayune

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Put the ‘Conserve’ in Conservative

Our friends at LaCoastPost call our attention to a strong, well-reasoned piece by Bob Marshall (below), Pulitzer Prize–winning environmental and outdoors reporter for the Times-Picayune, imploring the Republicans who control Louisiana’s state capital and congressional delegation in Washington to do some conserving of the lower one-third of the Pelican State before it’s too damn late.

We have noted before that “self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ are far from the root meaning of conserve, as in conservation, preservation” referred to by President Reagan above. Now Bob Marshall, also a winner of the prestigious John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, eloquently elaborates on a point he emphasized at Rising Tide 6 in New Orleans in August (see his remarks at the 11:45 environmental panel “Re-Capping the Well”). We take the liberty of reprinting Mr. Marshall’s column in full because we could not find a sentence that did not bear repeating and acting upon.

Listen up, Baton Rouge and Washington: Stop playing games. Time is running out.

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The Conservative Case for Saving the Coast

By Bob Marshall  |  The Times-Picayune  |  Sunday, October 2, 2011

The water keeps rising, the coast keeps sinking and the nation still ignores us. So, not surprisingly, I keep getting this question: What needs to happen for the country to finally realize Southeast Louisiana is running out of time? There’s no getting around one of the answers:

Louisiana’s voters must find, nominate and elect conservatives (aka, Republicans) who understand there’s no contradiction in being pro-life, pro-gun, pro-fiscal responsibility and pro-environment.

Unless that happens soon, I’m afraid we’ll be moving coastal communities within the next decade.

This is not a partisan attack on the Republican Party. It’s a matter of the record.

Louisiana is a Republican state. Six of our seven House members—including two of the three that represent Southeast Louisiana—are from the GOP, as is one of our two senators. It’s unlikely that will change anytime soon.

Yet that party has blocked initiatives that could help this coast while pushing others that will only speed its death. And Louisiana’s GOP delegation has been loyal foot soldiers in most of those efforts.

For example, earlier this year the House GOP took President Obama’s already meager request for $35.5 million to fund vital coastal restoration projects and whittled it down to $1 million. Only 20 Republicans voted for the whole package—and one of the “no” votes was from a Louisiana GOP member, Rep. John Fleming of Minden.

When that $1 million chump change was tossed our way you might have seen headlines calling the action “A win for the coast” because any future requests can no longer be put in the category of “new starts” by budget cutters.

Please. That’s like calling Waterloo a win for France because Napoleon escaped. That’s because the House was making a clear statement with its vote: In times of tight budgets, saving what’s left of the most productive estuary in the United States, the ecosystem that protects millions of people and billions in economic infrastructure, is not a priority. The fiscal ideologues running the party insist on making deep cuts in anything considered “discretionary” spending, which is obviously where they place the future of Southeast Louisiana.

And if they didn’t think we were a big enough priority for a measly $35 million—the tax bill of a few billionaires—imagine what they’ll say when we ask for the $100 billion a real fix is estimated to cost. It’s certainly not as important to them as the oil industry. While they were putting Louisiana’s coast in jeopardy to save $35 million, they didn’t touch the $45 billion in tax subsidies for oil and gas companies over the next 10 years.

It would be bad enough if the GOP just left us alone, but they’re actually taking steps to make our situation worse.

(more…)

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Rachel Maddow Reporting from Jean Lafitte National Park

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

When Rachel Maddow broadcast from the French Quarter the Friday night before the Super Bowl (how long ago that feels!), she surely did not imagine she would be back a few months later covering the hugest godawful environmental catastrophe this nation has ever seen. Since the Earth Day Blowout Rachel has been to Venice, Louisiana, down in the Birdfoot, as has her NBC comrade Brian Williams, and on Wednesday she broadcast from the west bank of New Orleans, with the city and the river behind her. Tonight (Thursday) she will broadcast from Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Today’s Lesson: Why Louisiana’s Wetlands Are Important

Rachel visited the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, about 15 miles from the Quarter, and spoke with park official David Muth and Dr. Larry McKinney, research director of the Harte Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M–Corpus Christi, about why coastal wetlands are important: not only for all the life within them but also because every 2.7 square miles reduces hurricane storm surge by about a foot. The swamps are a buffer for New Orleans and other human settlements in coastal Louisiana. But because the state is losing about 25 square miles every year, or 50 acres a day—1,900 square miles have disappeared in the past century—the 15-, 20-, and 25-foot storm surges that come with hurricanes grow more catastrophic every year. Parks official David Muth tells Rachel:

Our biggest concern is that as we enter hurricane season, when we have a storm in the Gulf, even if it doesn’t come ashore, it can push enormous amounts of water up into this estuary. And once that happens, then a lot of that oil has the potential to come much farther inland, even into a fresh water swamp like this than we might otherwise have thought possible.

We wrote a few weeks ago in some detail about how the oil slick threatens the vegetation that holds the wetlands together—the sea grass and cypresses whose roots hold the soil together and put the “land” in wetlands—and how the Oilpocalypse thus threatens the long-term survival of the Crescent City, long after it may wipe out the livelihoods of the shrimpers, oystermen, and fishermen along the Gulf Coast. We are grateful to MSNBC for sending Rachel and her crew, and to NBC for keeping environmental reporter Anne Thompson on the scene, and for sending, again and again, Brian Williams, whose affection for New Orleans and Louisiana is evident and, we hope, contagious. Thanks for keeping the spotlight on.

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