Lost Near Sea

Jul 3, 2017

Imagine a coastal community slowly swallowed up by the water that provides its way of life. This is what Earl Armstrong, a resident of Venice, Louisiana, and many others throughout southern Louisiana have been experiencing for decades.

Appropriately named, Venice is the southernmost community in Louisiana accessible by car: the tip of the boot. It is also home to many former residents of Pilot Town, a community another eight miles south of Venice. Once a quaint but lively island town populated by riverboat captains, fisherman and offshore oil workers, Pilot Town is now boarded up and abandoned. The ever-increasing intensity of storms and hurricanes paired with coastal erosion and school closings, caused by climate change and oil canal dredging, forced many, like Armstrong, to abandon their childhood homes and head north.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Put in layman’s terms, the state of Louisiana is sinking. Most of the land in southeast Louisiana is loosely-packed sediment deposited by the Mississippi River, and it’s compacting. As this subsidence is pulling this low-lying region further down, the water around the land is rising. Armstrong has seen this first hand. In the ’80s, boating with his father in marshes—which are now open water—they would have arguments about this predicament. Armstrong’s father would begin: “The water’s rising,” which was always countered by Armstrong’s, “No, the water’s rising and the ground is sinking.”

Along with subsidence and rising sea levels, land loss in Louisiana is caused by levees and the canals dredged by oil and gas companies. Subsidence on its own would not be a large problem. The compression of sediment can be counteracted by a frequent overflow of the Mississippi River, which deposits new sediment and builds up the land. Before levees were built in the 1930s, this natural process built land faster than it was lost.

Flooding became a real problem only after the land around the mouth of the Mississippi River became prime real estate at the turn of the century. Soon after, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 prompted the federal government to protect the land by building large levees to prevent the river from flooding. This allowed the lively—and below sea level—city of New Orleans to grow into the worldwide attraction that it is today. But the levees prevent the Mississippi from depositing much-needed sediment across the region. In an interview with the HPR, Denise Reed, coastal marsh sustainability expert at the Water Institute of the Gulf, said, “Once you’ve lost those wetlands, the natural processes that built them are no longer available.” As a result, sinking land on the coast is simply lost to the rising water from the Gulf.

Residents can see the difference. Armstrong built a pier in Venice four feet above the water in 1983. Now it barely sees air during low tide. What was waterfront property years ago is now underwater, and the water only continues to rise: it is expected to rise another 14.5 inches by 2040. Although that rise does not seem exceedingly threatening, the average elevation of the town of Venice is 0 feet—at sea level. By 2040, the entirety of Venice could be underwater, and the refugees of Pilot Town could be left stranded again, forced to move farther north.
If You Can’t Explain it to a Six-Year-Old…

When the oil and gas industry took off in the ’50s, oil companies dredged about 10,000 miles of canals through the Louisiana marsh. This immediate land loss was magnified, as turning marsh into open water causes wave erosion and increased hurricane intensity, destroying even more of the marsh.

Coastal erosion went predominantly unaddressed until Hurricane Katrina in 2005, possibly because of how hard it is to understand the scale of the problem. Many compare Louisiana’s coastal land loss to football fields: one is lost roughly every 45 to 60 minutes. This is misleading, of course, as land is not lost at a constant rate. Hurricanes, no longer abated by abundant marshes and barrier islands that absorb wind energy and lessen the height of storm surges, take out land at a much faster rate than a dry sunny day.

As Reed points out, land loss also occurred faster in the ’50s and ’60s as a result of canal dredging and a rapid loss of the most vulnerable land to rising water and wave erosion. But after the deadliest storm in a century hit Louisiana’s coastline, coastal erosion plans were passed by the legislature every five years starting in 2007. The third installation passed this May. But while Louisiana citizens and legislators alike now seem to be united on coastal erosion, they aren’t on climate change.

Big Oil, Bigger Problems

The Louisiana economy runs on oil and gas. In 2014, the industry added around $78 billion to the state coffers and economy. This demanding presence is evident in the workers of Venice. Armstrong transported workers on crew boats through the marshes to oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. Harsher regulations on fossil fuels or a shift to green energy could mean job loss for people like Armstrong. In Louisiana, climate change caused by fossil fuels would be a detrimental, and therefore unacceptable, reality.

In addition, coastal restoration efforts are primarily funded by oil and gas companies. In an interview with the HPR, Robert Verchick, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said, “We’re depending on the same industry that’s eroding our wetlands to restore it.”

Implementation of the 2017 coastal erosion plan depends on payout money from the BP oil spill, severance taxes on oil and gas produced in Louisiana, as well as a revenue stream created through royalty sharing from federal leases. Reed believes that without money from the BP oil spill, the plan would simply be an “academic exercise.” With a budget deficit of around $315 million and a legislature which refuses to increase the tax on a can of beer by three-quarters of a penny, more funding from Louisiana won’t appear any time soon.  Not only is Louisiana economically dependent upon the oil and gas industry; its coast is in the hands of those who have damaged its marshes through canal dredging and climate change.

Louisiana’s Democratic Governor, John Bel Edwards, has been a supporter of the state’s 2017 coastal erosion plan to address coastal erosion, but said in a radio interview in September that he was not ready to point to “human conduct” as a cause for climate change. Many people who witness Louisiana’s coastal erosion and rising sea level agree. Explaining the rising waters, Armstrong said, “It’s due to global warming they say; I don’t know much about that. All I can tell you about is what I see.” Because of this widespread unawareness or denial of human contributions to climate change and a dependence on oil and gas to keep the economy afloat, Louisiana is not only sinking; it’s voting to sink.

Counterintuitive and Counterproductive

“As a state we vote against any attempt to curtail climate change,” Verchick told the HPR. Legislators like U.S. Representative Garret Graves (R – La.) oppose regulations on the oil and gas industry, claiming they impede the success of coastal restoration efforts by reducing collected royalties used to fund coastal protection. Louisiana may never be able to fully address coastal erosion because the state’s programs on that front are funded by the same industry that creates the problem.

In 2014, former governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill to quell a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East against 97 oil and gas companies. The plaintiff sued the companies claiming they contributed to the increased risk of flooding due to storm surges, and therefore cost the plaintiff money in increased flood protection infrastructure. The bill was later declared unconstitutional, so it had no real effect. Nonetheless, it confirmed that a bill actively opposing accountability for oil and gas companies can be passed in both houses and signed by the governor, even when it would mean foregoing revenue for flood protection.

The suit was later dismissed because the effects of coastal erosion were deemed too far removed from the cause. Other suits against oil and gas companies are currently pending. It may be several years before we know if Louisiana laws are broad enough to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for its contributions to such a large problem.
The 2017 coastal erosion plan is expected to cost more than $50 billion over 50 years, and even after its implementation coastal erosion will continue. Climate change may even get worse. Without a more permanent funding stream, in 15 years when the BP payout money runs out, the only way to save Venice will be another oil spill.