Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Tides Are Rising for Louisiana's Disappearing Coasts

By Emma JohnstonPublished October 20, 2014

A modern Louisiana Purchase is underway, and it's just as unprecedented as the original. This time, historian John Barry hopes to make oil and gas companies pay for the land they have destroyed along the coast of Louisiana.

By Emma Johnston, 10/20/14

We are in the midst of a modern Louisiana Purchase, just as unprecedented as the original one. This time, historian John Barry hopes to make oil and gas companies pay for the land they have destroyed along Louisiana's coast.

Every hour, Louisiana loses enough land to the sea to fill a football field. From 1932 to 2000, 1,900 square miles of land, roughly the size of Delaware, have disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. As Louisiana's wetlands disappear, its coastal area loses a valuable buffer against hurricanes and floods. Diminished coasts leave a third of the state's population, 20% of US waterborne commerce, and 10% of US oil production vulnerable to catastrophic storm-related damage.

The oil and gas industry admits that it is responsible for 36% of current wetland loss in Louisiana, while the Department of the Interior states that this level of depletion could be as high as 59%. Oil and gas extraction from 50,000 wells along the Gulf Coast has caused the land to subside, or sink downward. Canals dug by companies to reach natural resources have offset the the wetlands' salt balance, which has resulted in increased plant deaths and the erosion of interior coastal lands. While Louisiana state law and permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers require oil and gas companies to restore wetlands to their original state after extracting energy deposits, they have not fulfilled their obligations.

However, it has been difficult to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their detrimental environmental practices. The industry often avoids intense scrutiny because of its major role in Louisiana's economy, having extracted $470 billion of natural resources over the last two decades. In 2007, Louisiana created a Coastal Master Plan to restore coastal wetlands. In 2012, the plan was revised and it was decided that it would be partially financed through the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement funds. While industry groups supported the plan's provisions, they argued that the costs should be covered by public funds- taxpayer dollars. Barry thought this proposal was unfair. Why should oil and gas companies avoid fully paying for the damage they were directly responsible for?

Barry began his battle in 2007 after being appointed to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E). This agency is responsible for overseeing flood management projects in the southeast region of the state, which includes New Orleans. He soon realized that SLFPA-E's authority was largely restricted to advising groups like the Army Corps of Engineers that were often loath to follow its recommendations.

In July 2013, Barry filed an $18 billion lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies, compelling them to pay for wetland restoration efforts for Louisiana's protective buffer. Spearheading his lawsuit through SLFPA-E, Barry faced opposition from Governor Bobby Jindal, a recipient of over $1 million in campaign contributions from the energy industry. In reaction to the lawsuit, Jindal quickly replaced Barry and two other high-ranking SLFPA-E officials with pro-oil and gas industry members who had little knowledge of flood protection.

Jindal and other lawmakers supported up by the oil and gas industry have gone to great lengths to kill the lawsuit, passing the Louisiana State Coastal Resources Management Act that restricts the rights of SLFPA-E to sue industry groups. This authority will be restricted to state agencies, the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, the attorney general, local districts attorneys, the attorney general, and parish governments with coastal managements.

Even if the lawsuit does not go through, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has granted $2.5 million to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority in Louisiana for wetland restoration. At a local level, however, coastal authorities like SLFPA-E will only be successful at protecting the shores when they are supported with a knowledgeable staff that has an interest in doing so. This is easier said than done when protecting the coasts acts against the governor and other pro-industry politicians, who can reappoint local board members whose priorities better align with their own. Above all, one priority should be clear among oil, gas, political, and public interests:
if we don't reverse the current trend in wetland loss, no industries or people will be able to call Louisiana's disappearing coast home.