Hundreds of square miles of marsh grasses that once carpeted Louisiana's coastal prairies have become open water in the space of a few decades. As the marshes disappear at an alarming rate, so does the state's natural hurricane protection barrier. Along with it go vast acres of Gulf fisheries and nurseries, coastal cultures, the very ground needed to protect the nation's domestic oil and gas infrastructure.
Filmmaker Walter Williams' recent documentary, Restoring the Coast: Who Pays?, explores the legacy of oil and gas companies along Louisiana's coast and the reasons why some coastal advocates believe the energy industry should pay at least some of the costs of restoring the coast before it's too late.
Until recently, Williams was best known as the creator of Saturday Night Live's infamously tragic character, Mr. Bill. Lately, Williams has earned acclaim for his campaign to restore the coast at the expense of the oil and gas industry.
'Maybe I'm just nave," the mild-mannered Williams suggests in a telephone interview from his second home in California's Sequoia National Forest, "but it seems to me that the most logical thing would be for them to step up and be the good guys and say, "We're not accepting any blame, but we're going to do what's right for Louisiana and pitch in and restore the coast and finance it.'"
A native of New Orleans, Williams became interested in the coastal issue while working on a one-hour PBS documentary about, as its title suggests, The Natural History of New Orleans. Williams says the experience taught him a lot about what has made and broken the wetlands as well as their critical role in his hometown's survival.
Over the past 50 years, huge deposits of oil and gas have been discovered under Louisiana's wetlands. To transport their equipment and extract the liquid gold as cheaply as possible, oil and gas companies literally dug in and began dredging their collective legacy. The digging has stopped, but the 8,000 miles of man-made waterways and the ridges that line them remain a dense labyrinth across Louisiana's estuarine landscape, arresting the natural flow of water and the lifeblood of the wetlands. The impacts of the transportation canals and pipelines, some decades old, continue to adversely affect Louisiana's dynamic coast.
In addition, recent information from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) shows that the process of extracting oil and gas from the earth's subsurface causes a pressure shift in underground reservoirs, resulting in "subsidence" or sinking land. Even a little subsidence in the Gulf marshes can cause "dramatic changes in the affected wetland ecosystems," including "large wetland losses through a combination of coastal plain subsidence and marsh sediment erosion," according to USGS Fact Sheet FS-091-01.
'The wetland thing is definitely the No. 1 issue facing New Orleans. Crime and bad schools and hospitals all take a back seat if the ocean comes barreling in at 30 feet with nothing to stop it," Williams says.
In Louisiana, almost everyone agrees that the state's wetlands are in critical condition, but not everyone agrees that the oil and gas industries are the main cause of the problem. Ed Landgraf is an oil industry representative and vice chairman of the Terrebonne Coastal Zone Management and Restoration Advisory Committee. His state-affiliated role in coastal management includes reviewing Coastal Use Permit applications. "I personally believe that getting the sediment and fresh water nutrients has been our major problem," he says. "Even without the oil and gas industry in the wetland areas, you would still have a significant amount of coastal land loss and subsidence."
In recent years, an increasing amount of "the blame" has shifted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The theory touted by the state's master plan for coastal restoration posits that the Mississippi River's man-made levees designed and built by the Corps have cut off valuable deposits of sediment and nutrients that build and sustain wetlands. Williams and others say that the levees and the Corps are distractions from the larger problem and from a possible source of much-needed revenue.
Blaming the Corps is a futile exercise, and it's too simplistic, Williams argues. "The Corps' designs may very well have held up [during Katrina] if they had had the amount of land that they had when they designed the levees in the 1960s," Williams says. Indeed, many scientists say storm surge is reduced by at least 1 foot for every 2.7 miles of marshland. Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of hurricane-absorbing coastal land since the 1930s, according to the USGS.
In the debate over what has caused Louisiana's wetland loss, two of the most popular culprits are the Mississippi River levees and the oil and gas navigation canals. Estimates vary as to what percentage of land loss each has caused. Williams' film shines a light on the canal theory, a relatively unknown paradigm founded in scientific data and in the work of Dr. Eugene Turner, director of the Coastal Ecology Institute at LSU. Turner has spent decades studying why wetlands are disappearing.
Turner distinguishes the key ingredient in building upon the inorganic platform that the plants live on the organic sediment from the wetland system that forms once the plants are in place. "That's the system we've lost," he explains in the film. "We've been building land for almost 7,000 years, and all of a sudden we're losing 20 percent in 50 years and all over the coast, and only where we dredge."
In a recent interview, Turner expounds: ""Data trumps concept' is the theme. Where dredging canals happens, land loss happens. If you look at the Barataria or the St. Bernard Basin for different intervals of time, where land loss has been high, dredging has been high. Where land loss is low, dredging has been low. And if you plot the data, there's a line that goes right through zero. The more you dredge, the more land loss you have."
According to Turner's book, Approaches to Coastal Wetland Restoration, Northern Gulf of Mexico, and through his numerous scientific articles, canals are the No. 1 cause of wetland loss. "The "levee view' of land loss centers around the "need' for sediments. I can't support that the data won't support that," says Turner, who remembers a time when the levees were not to blame. "For a while the paradigm was the dredging had caused land loss."
Turner conducted state projects on the effects of canals in the 1980s, using 30 years of data. "That was when we agreed that canals were responsible for a minimum of 29 to 59 percent of the land loss." We phrased it that way because people thought it was at least that much. Some people thought it was a lot more. Then the restoration program came in to deal with the loss and it switched, seems to me rather abruptly, to the Mississippi River has caused all the damage the Corps of Engineers, lack of sediment and I just can't buy it. The data doesn't show it."
Through his research, Turner has determined that the percentage of canal-related wetland loss depends on the coast. "There's two kinds [of effects]," he explains, "There's the direct effect from construction of a canal, and then there's the indirect effect, which is the things that happen afterward because you've changed the hydrology. So the direct effects are pretty low, but cumulatively it's 20 percent; and the indirect effects look to me to be 90 percent total. Certainly my peers might agree that 30 to 40 percent of coastal land loss is due to dredging. There are certainly times when land loss is not due to oil and gas activity, but it appears to be a minority."
Turner makes a compelling argument based on his data, but many disagree with him. "It doesn't put one dollar in the trust fund to argue and bicker and scream about whose fault it is," says Chris John, president of Louisiana's Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, a leading oil and gas industry group. "The fact of the matter is there are a lot of entities at fault: the state, the Corps, oil and gas, Mother Nature, there's a lot of reasons for it."
Members of the oil and gas industry declined to be interviewed for Williams' documentary. Being one-sided, the film lays out a convincing argument against the oil and gas industry by drawing on several familiar figures, including Tulane University environmental law professor Oliver Houck. In Williams' documentary and in his own work, Houck says federal mining and toxic waste laws have set precedents for what needs to be done in Louisiana.
'The so-called Superfund law, the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), adopts the same principle for the impacts of chemical operations around the country as the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act," Houck says. "It imposes on today's coal industry to repair damage by industrial players in the past, many of whom are no longer in existence.
'The nature of the activity with the oil and with the coal is basically an access problem: They're both under the ground, and you've got to get to it. That means causing very significant in our case marsh damage, just like mountain damage in Appalachia."
The environmental comparisons among coal, chemicals, and oil and gas are striking. In all cases, there are many players, and the cumulative damage was or is enormous. Each industry caused multi-state damage that was or is beyond any single state's ability to repair. "So Congress passed this law, which taxed the current members of the industry with the cleanup of the sites for which many of them had no responsibility at all. It was just a problem that was caused generically by the industry," says Houck.
A mandatory cleanup aimed at the oil and gas industries has no legal foundation in Louisiana, however, even though the rate of land loss here ranks among the highest in the world. That doesn't mean that coastal advocates have given up.
'If there is a meaningful connection between us going after [oil and gas] and the creation of the problem, then I think it passes the smell test there," says Mark Davis, director of the Institute of Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane Law School. "There's no question that oil and gas ought to be one of the things that we're looking at for funding the work that needs to be done."
Davis agrees with others who say that the oil and gas industry is not solely responsible, however. "The real issue is what do we need to do and where do we find the money to do it? There should be no sacred cows in this conversation."
Davis says he favors anything that works, assuming that it does not result in a profound injustice. "But right now, waiting too little or too long actually fails that test, too; it will affect profound injustice."
Oil and gas execs argue that the industry is not only paying now, but also that it has paid historically for coastal restoration and for a sizeable portion of the Louisiana state budget. Last year the oil and gas industry paid about $1.4 billion in state taxes, royalties and fees.
'We pay the same business tax that the mom and pop business pays: sales tax, corporate income tax, all the things associated with normal business tax," says Mid-Continent's Chris John. "In addition, we pay rents, royalties, fees that add up to about 14 percent of the state budget. In the past, when my dad was in the state Legislature, we have paid upwards of 70 percent of the state budget."
In most states, oil-and-gas-related revenues help pay for education, health care and other public needs but not necessarily the damage caused by extracting the minerals. In Louisiana, the opposite is true. "Basically, oil and gas production pays for the bulk of Louisiana's restoration projects," says Chris Macaluso, public information director for the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA).
Wetlands advocates fear the state's focus on the Mississippi River is diverting (no pun intended) the public's attention from the most critical connection. In a 2005 article ('Can We Save New Orleans?"), Houck writes that the oil and gas industry and the state's policy of blaming coastal collapse on the levees are part of a continuing problem that has the effect of not having to ask the industry for a contribution.
'We were making money all the way to the bank over the oil and gas industry so we weren't about to stand in their way," Houck says in an interview. "Our congressional delegation has made that pitch in order to get more money for coastal Louisiana, but no federal agency and, to my knowledge, no federal official elected or appointed has ever said the oil and gas industry ought to pay for the harm it caused here because it's just too damn powerful an industry."
The state has, in the past few years, made some advances toward securing federal funding for coastal restoration without having to charge the oil and gas companies for the damage. "It cannot be understated about what Sen. Mary Landrieu was able to accomplish," John says, referring to Landrieu's successful fight for a percentage of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) mineral revenues for the state. Louisiana's share of the most recent OCS lease sale is about $78 million. That money is constitutionally dedicated to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Fund.
'It's hard to tell what [OCS revenue] is going to be next year that depends on what the leases go for," says CPRA's Macaluso. "Because oil and gas are more valuable than ever, we don't expect it to drop off. We're expecting to generate $65 million to $70 million."
Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco helped Landrieu's effort by threatening to block federal offshore lease sales several years ago. She took the position that lease sales had harmed coastal marshes because of related oil and gas activity, and therefore the feds should help mitigate the damages. Prior to Blanco's unprecedented move against mineral leases, many say, Louisiana was too compliant with oil and gas companies. Others disagree.
'I have trouble blaming the oil companies for this," says Kerry St. Pé, program director for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program and a member of the Governor's Coastal Restoration and Hurricane Protection Advisory Council. St. Pé recalls that the oil companies dug the canals in accordance with federal and state regulations. "The oil companies are politically strong and they advocate for dredging canals. It's up to the agency heads to say yes or no and to strike that balance. People who advocate for the wetlands don't have a voice, so it skews over to the user side," says St. Pé.
While St. Pé argues that the state agencies charged with maintaining that balance have not always done so in the past, he feels there is hope for the coast in Gov. Bobby Jindal. "All indications are that he's going to take the bull by the horns and move forward," St. Pé says. His confidence in the current administration is not widely shared by wetlands advocates, despite Jindal's recent dedication of $300 million to coastal restoration.
While other funds are available in large part because of oil and gas royalties Louisiana is far from covering the cost of restoring its coast, a cost estimated in the tens of billions of dollars and growing. St. Pé says major oil companies have seen the wetland loss to the point that it is affecting their ability to work there and that they've seen the need to restore the coast.
'Things have changed in my 30-plus-year career," he says. "I find myself at meetings advocating for wetland restoration right alongside people from Shell, Chevron and Texaco. It's a different world."
John confirms St. Pé's observation: "As a resident of coastal Louisiana having represented in Congress 300 miles of coastline, I'm as passionate about saving our coast as anybody else." As Mid-Continent's president, John says he's "very much involved" with America's Wetland, the state-and-industry-partnered campaign designed to get federal money to fix the coast. The America's Wetland campaign, as Williams knows, stops way short of laying any blame on the oil and gas industry.
'All of the major companies are partners," John says. "Shell's a big player. So is Chevron, Conoco, Exxon, BP, Citco it's a big deal and its focus is on the energy coast from Texas to Alabama and the importance. I think it's a wonderful campaign because it's not just about Louisiana, where we haven't done very good."
John adds that while Louisiana is an enormously important national energy asset, "we're a small state. When we go up to Washington or we go up to the oil and gas guys and we say "Hey, we need some money,' we would like to do it from an energy coast standpoint Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama not just Louisiana."
Whitney Bank Vice Chair R. King Milling of New Orleans chairs the America's Wetland Foundation and the Governor's Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation. "The state is not sitting around determining who's to blame," he says. "The state has got to be fixated on what do we do to fix the problem. The federal government has demanded of the Corps of Engineers that they come up with a master plan to look at the same issues that the state did. Then the job is going to require that we call on the federal government every year to match our funding."
Many coastal advocates share Williams' view of wanting to convince the oil and gas industry to pay not just for mineral development rights but also for the cost of the damage energy exploration and production have inflicted on the coast. "I see these as two separate piles of money," Williams says. Litigation is one potential means of securing the second pile, if public pressure doesn't get the job done.
The untimely death of leading shoreline expert Shea Penland left advocates for coastal restoration mourning the loss of a colleague and friend and dazed by the loss of someone who had given hope to the environmental community. At the time of his death, Penland was working on establishing a factual and scientific basis for a viable legal claim against the industry. Penland's shoes remain unfilled.
'Shea Penland was instrumental in marrying the science of wetlands issues with the law. His [death] is a tremendous loss to the citizens of Louisiana, because he understood both the science side and the legal side of the citizens that I represent," says wetlands advocate and attorney Val Exnicios. "He was not only knowledgeable but also credible in the eyes of the court as one of the two leading experts in the world on wetlands issues and coastal erosion."
Litigation is not the only alternative. The state could obtain more money by lobbying Congress or dedicating a greater share of existing mineral royalties toward coastal restoration. But the total cost of restoration is overwhelming.
In Restoring the Coast, Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), says state oil revenues alone could never produce what's needed. In addition, she says, there is no assurance that the federal government is going to find additional billions. "The state needs to start thinking about where it's going to get its revenues. I think they need to call the oil companies in [and] negotiate how much the oil companies are willing to come forward with," Sarthou says in the film.
Aaron Viles, GRN's campaign director, says he believes oil companies should help pay for the coast because "We see the writing on the wall. There is very solid evidence that has pegged them as 40 to 60 percent of the problem. I'd say, to be fair, they pay 40 to 60 percent of the cost."
Beyond litigation, on the outer edges of the issue, simmers a topic that hasn't won its place in mainstream policy discussions yet: carbon management and landowners' right to be paid for keeping their coastlands intact. Wetlands offer a tremendous and thus far free service by naturally storing greenhouse gases that otherwise would contribute to global warming. When wetlands fall apart, they liberate carbon as well as nitrogen, which is a more problematic greenhouse gas.
'There are people out there, other businesses like Entergy, that are paying people in other states and in other countries to plant trees to sequester carbon. We don't have the capacity to do that yet within the legal structure or the market structure with coastal wetlands," Davis says.
In the end, Williams sees a potential for bringing the oil and gas industry to the table amicably. "I get the feeling they would like to settle something. It could cut their liability. Even if it's just to protect their own infrastructure, which is really getting exposed in ways it wasn't designed to, not to mention the New Orleans hurricane situation all the buildings, the infrastructure, replacement costs, mental anguish, loss of employment who knows what kind of price tag that could be?"