WASHINGTON — With another hurricane having battered Louisiana’s coast, leaving thousands with flooded homes, the state now has a $50 billion master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection that was approved earlier this year.
The question state and federal officials are trying to answer is exactly how to piece together steady streams of revenue to put the plan into action before another tropical storm can wreak more havoc on south Louisiana. Hurricane Isaac demonstrated New Orleans may be better protected, but the Category 1 storm also illuminated the vulnerabilities of much of the rest of the region.
Isaac is again “showing the consequences” of many decades of underfunding to protect Louisiana’s coasts, marshes, barrier islands and communities, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. Another 1,800 people should not need to “futilely” die to get the federal government to take notice, she said, recalling Hurricane Katrina’s death toll.
“It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be very hard,” Landrieu said. “But it is critically important.”
The federal RESTORE Act that will direct 80 percent of the BP oil leak fines to five Gulf Coast states could eventually send a few billion dollars to Louisiana, and serve as the unofficial “down payment” on the master plan.
But other programs like the five-year-old federal Louisiana Coastal Area Programs have thus far come up empty. The program was supposed to send $2 billion to Louisiana for “near-term” coastal protection construction projects. The result, so far though, is the state has not received a single dollar.
Instead, Louisiana residents are waiting until 2017 for a potentially steady stream of revenue because the Landrieu-sponsored Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, or GOMESA, that became law in 2006, does not fully kick in for another five years.
The law will allow Louisiana to share in the 37.5 percent royalty that the federal government receives from new drilling in 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana is expected to receive close to half of the funds with the rest going to Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.
“The good news is we’ve made some major progress with funding opportunities — GOMESA and RESTORE,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
“The bad news is none of it is built yet.”
Because the offshore drilling revenue-sharing is capped at $500 million a year for the four states, rough estimates show Louisiana starting with close to $100 million in 2017, and then potentially growing to $250 million a year or more. But much of that depends on the amounts of future offshore oil-and-gas drilling off Louisiana’s coastline.
“We can get 100 percent revenue sharing and it doesn’t matter unless there’s (drilling) activity,” Vitter said.
Garret Graves, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, said even getting close to $100 million in 2017 may be “ rather optimistic,” because the BP oil leak indirectly caused the delay of Gulf lease sales for oil production that triggers the revenue sharing.
Graves said it may take until 2019 or 2020 for the larger windfalls. “The oil spill has certainly complicated the situation,” he said.
The GOMESA dollars may represent a lot of money, Landrieu said, but it is still just a “small portion” of the $6 billion or so the federal government receives each year from oil-and-gas revenues off Louisiana’s coast.
The Louisiana congressional delegation also is working to funnel as many dollars to Louisiana as possible through two other key vehicles — the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act and the Water Resources Development Act — but neither of those bills is expected to be finalized until next year.
U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said he sees signs of progress through the bills being passed, and through increased public and political attention paid to the plight of the state as the nation’s entryway for its biggest economic corridor, the Mississippi River.
“That said, we’re going to need more money,” Cassidy said.
It is now a cliché, but Louisiana is losing more than a football field an hour through coastal erosion, and the problem is far from new. About 25 square miles are lost annually.
More than 60 years ago, Louisiana was fighting for its fair share of offshore oil revenues under the argument that Louisiana is taking the risks — such as what happened in 2010 with the BP tragedy — and should share in the revenues that go to the U.S. Treasury.
In 1949, President Harry S. Truman offered Louisiana a similar deal to GOMESA with roughly one-third of the revenues going to Louisiana. But then-Gov. Earl Long, who acted under the advice of political boss Judge Leander Perez of Plaquemines Parish, unsuccessfully held out for 50 percent revenue sharing and the deal was taken off the table, never to return until after Katrina.
In 2006, the Louisiana delegation and GOMESA finally made headway in Washington, D.C. The U.S. House members led by now-Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed for a much more ambitious plan that would have sent more than $1 billion a year to Louisiana.
Ultimately, the only plan deemed palatable enough to gain full passage and the support of then-President George W. Bush was Landrieu’s Senate version that delayed the windfall to 2017. Landrieu said Bush insisted on the $500 million cap.
Then-U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, called the Senate GOMESA bill “a slap in the face” to Louisiana. But he said he eventually realized it was the only plan that had a chance to become law. “Is 2017 soon enough? No, it’s not,” Melancon said. “But I hope we can get there soon.”
Melancon said you fight for the “perfect” plan but, ultimately, have to “take the best you can get.” Still, it is yet another example of Louisiana not getting its fair share, he said.
Melancon pointed to 2000 when Congress approved the nearly $10 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in Florida, while simultaneously rejecting $4.5 billion for Louisiana as part of the proposed Conservation and Reinvestment Act.
The Everglades is a “petting zoo” compared to all the marshes, bayous and biodiversity of coastal Louisiana, Melancon said. But he said coastal Louisiana does not have a “catchy nickname” that draws in the attention of politicians.
Last year, Garret Graves, testified before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee and explained Louisiana’s needs.
Graves said the state has received a little more than $6 million from the smaller first phase of GOMESA since its inception, including only $220,000 last year. Most of the money came in 2009.
“There were a couple of zeros missing from our check,” Graves told the committee.
Graves was opposed by the committee’s ranking Democrat, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has likened designating the revenue stream to giving the coastal states the rights to stick a straw in the Gulf of Mexico and suck out its royalties.
Markey called the revenue sharing “welfare for the states.” He voices the stance of opposing forces in Congress.
Graves said he is hopeful President Barack Obama’s visit to Louisiana on Monday leaves a lasting impression. Obama indicated he understands the needs for better infrastructure and not just hurricane response, Graves said.
Valsin Marmillion, managing director of America’s WETLAND Foundation, said the GOMESA dollars certainly help, but they “are not nearly enough” to save degradation of the coastline that is being hurt by the “constant storm.”
If the federal government had invested in the right infrastructure in Louisiana more than a decade ago, Marmillion said, it would have already saved money because of all the billions since spent in response to Katrina and the storms.
“We can’t seem to have a federal understanding that they’re part of the problem and not the solution for coastal restoration,” he said.
If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinate better, Graves said, they will see the cost savings in $3 or $4 saved for every $1 invested in infrastructure.
“These folks would’ve been back at work on Thursday (after Isaac) versus gutting their homes,” Graves said of investing in advance, such as the long-proposed, $200 million west Lake Pontchartrain levee system that could have protected LaPlace and other areas.
Landrieu said the problems are compounded because the Corps of Engineers is continuing to suffer budget cuts. Louisiana currently has a Corps backlog of at least $2 billion in projects, and there is a national backlog of more than $40 billion, according to Landrieu.
The Corps of Engineers has about a $2 billion annual budget now. “Mississippi and Louisiana could use that much every year just for ourselves,” Landrieu said.
Adding insult to injury, Landrieu said, is the Corps of Engineers announcement last month that the Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Project is being delayed yet again.
The project involves a series of levees, locks and other systems through Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes that should, when complete, protect about 200,000 people against storm surges such as those caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Likewise, the federal government refuses to include areas like lower Plaquemines Parish in the federal protection plan under the argument that the smaller population there does not warrant the expenditures.
Along with pushing for measures to protect such coastal parishes like Plaquemines and Terrebonne, Landrieu said the key goal is to focus on congressionally expediting GOMESA and lifting the $500 million cap.
In June, U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, successfully convinced the House to approve amendments lifting the cap to $750 million. But he succeeded on doing so on larger bills considered dead-on-arrival in the Senate.
Then Landrieu filed the new Offshore Petroleum Expansion Now Act, or OPEN Act, that would eliminate the cap altogether.
Generally seen as a friend to the oil industry, Landrieu attracted Republican support to the bill because it also would expand offshore drilling in the Gulf, as well as along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines.
Landrieu said she knows the bill will require a “herculean” effort to pass, and it likely will not progress far in its current format.
But the fight is still necessary, she said.
“We’ve got to lift the cap and get at least $500 million a year for Louisiana,” Landrieu said.
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