NEW ORLEANS — The next governor will play a crucial role in Louisiana’s coastal crisis — either by aggressively working to save the coast or missing a prime opportunity to stop the state from slipping further into the Gulf of Mexico.
Louisiana is poised to receive about $8.7 billion in settlement money over damages caused by BP’s catastrophic 2010 Gulf oil spill — money mandated by law for environmental restoration.
All four major candidates — the three Republicans, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards — say they unequivocally support ongoing coastal restoration plans. Each, though, has offered some new ideas.
In the past century, more than 1,880 square miles of Louisiana land has been lost — an area nearly the size of Delaware. The loss continues unabated, with an average of 17 square miles disappearing yearly, according to estimates of the U.S. Geological Survey.
To stop the loss and keep south Louisiana safe from flooding, the state will need to spend at least $1 billion a year for the foreseeable future, according to the state’s own studies.
The BP settlement funds make bold talk of coastal restoration much more realistic. In addition, the state is counting on receiving $140 million a year starting in 2017 from offshore drilling revenues in the Gulf. Together, the next governor will have a windfall to use.
“If you’re a candidate looking at the glass as being half full rather than half empty, the area of coastal restoration is an area of enormous potential,” said G. Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “You have a lot of money in the pipeline — you’re not starting from nothing.”
Cross added that if the next governor leaves office with a record of stemming land loss he “could go down as one of the greatest governors in Louisiana history.”
But what the next governor will do to fix the coast is far from clear and some worry that the next governor might waste this opportunity.
“Scientists know what to do, it’s the institutions that fail us,” said Joseph Kelley, a marine geologist at the University of Maine who’s studied Louisiana’s coastal crisis.
He said political leaders in Louisiana have often proven unwilling to take bold steps to fix erosion, often because of unwillingness to upset entrenched industries and interests.
“You name it, there are so many competing interests,” Kelley said. “Imagine NASA launching a rocket to the moon with 14 competing interests. That’s just not going to work.”
“The next governor has to be immune to special interests,” said Sidney Coffee, a former governor’s adviser on coastal issues. “Everyone is for coastal restoration until it is in their back yard.”
Kelley said Louisiana’s “intractable” problem with land loss will mean “no more Band-Aid” fixes and aggressively pushing ahead with plans to let the Mississippi River run wild again to rebuild the delta.
“Breach the levees,” Kelley said, echoing a solution long advocated by coastal scientists to open up the river and let it overflow into shrinking basins.
The river today is largely constrained by levees and the mud it carries downriver is flushed into the Gulf. Scientists want to open the levees and let the river mud and fresh water pour into the delta — just as happened for millennia before levees were constructed and distributaries cut off. But many groups, including fishermen and coastal communities, oppose those plans.
On the flip side, even with so much money bound toward Louisiana, it won’t be easy.
Louisiana will need to find even more money than what BP has offered for all the work scientists say will be needed. The costs could be staggering — well over $50 billion over the next 50 years.
David Muth, the director of Gulf restoration at the National Wildlife Federation, said the state will need to propose new taxes, perhaps on industries such as oil and gas and navigation.
“We need to pay for this or everybody has to pack up and leave,” Muth said.
Besides failing to push for new revenue, the next governor could also waste the BP money by pouring it into coastal restoration projects that don’t work.
“It would be easy to spend billions of dollars of BP money,” Muth said, “and not get a diversion done.”
There’s another risk: the BP money could end up filling other budget holes.
“For as much as they scream about fixing the coast, it often ends up playing second fiddle to other budget concerns,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster. “The money had better be nailed down tight.”
This article was written by Cain Burdeau from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.