Louisiana communities, including Dedham Springs, were devastated by flooding in August 2016 and battle climate change all along the Gulf Coast. Photo credit: Karen Savage

By Karen Savage

Without taking a breath, Kindra Arnesen impatiently rattled off the major storms that have inundated her Venice, La., community in recent years; Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, Isaac.  With each major storm, she said, the Gulf of Mexico claims more and more of the wetlands that protect Louisiana’s coast—and that’s not including the countless unnamed storms that have come in between.

“I’m sinking,” said Arnesen, a mother of two and wife of a commercial fisherman. “I know it’s not if, it’s when it’s going to destroy my house again,” she said.

Arnesen said anyone who thinks climate change and coastal erosion aren’t real needs to look no further than Louisiana’s coastal parishes, where communities are plagued by increasingly intense storms and more frequent flooding. Land loss has become so severe, Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency in April, hoping for federal assistance. Governors commonly make that move after devastating storms, but in Louisiana, climate change is a persistent force eating away the coastline at an alarming rate.

“My land and my home are not sustainable—it won’t take another 30, 40, 50 years to wipe this place out,” Arnesen said. “We’ve got to do something because what we’re doing is nothing and it’s not working.”

According to a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 90 coastal communities in the U.S. already face chronic flooding from rising seas, a number it projects to jump to 170 communities within 20 years and 670 by the end of the century. The impacts can be lessened if the goals of the Paris climate agreement are met, the researchers said, along with policy that discourages risky coastal development.

But for some, it’s already too late. Isle de Jean Charles, a community about 70 miles west of Arnesen’s home, last year received a $48 million dollar federal grant to relocate the 60 or so residents still living on the island. Saving its threatened coastal communities has become an increasingly urgent state priority.

Decades of planning went into creating the state’s Coastal Master Plan, a 50-year $50 billion series of projects designed to protect communities and restore the coastal ecosystem. In April, the state approved the plan and Bel Edwards hoped the state of emergency would speed up the permitting process.

Under President Trump, who has made it clear he does not believe climate change is an urgent problem, the federal government seems ill inclined to help states deal with climate impacts. Worse, he has proposed repealing  the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), which was to be a key funding source for Louisiana’s coastal plan.

For decades, oil and gas companies have drilled in federal waters off the coast of Louisiana and along much of the Gulf Coast. The wells and canals dug by oil companies—many now abandoned—damaged fragile ecosystems and weakened the ability of the state’s wetlands to naturally protect the state from hurricanes.

Over the years, Louisiana received little compensation from the federal government for the destruction. It wasn’t until 2006 that GOMESA was signed into law by President Bush, giving Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas 37.5 percent of the money collected by the federal government from companies that drill off their coasts. GOMESA was rolled out in two phases, with significant payments to Louisiana and the other coastal states scheduled to begin in 2018. But now, those payments are in jeopardy.

President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget calls for a complete repeal of GOMESA, which for Louisiana translates to the loss of an estimated $140 million in each of the next two years. GOMESA opponents say revenue generated from drilling in federal waters should be shared by all states, not just those along the Gulf coast.

Directly tied to the amount of drilling in the Gulf, future revenues were expected to increase after President Trump signed an executive order expanding drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) did not respond to a request for comment.

In GOMESA, the federal government assumed some responsibility for the environmental impacts of offshore drilling, but the liability for climate impacts is the larger looming question. Louisiana will be among the states quickly grappling with how to pay for the damage should the federal government abdicate responsibility.

“We’ve been the sacrifice for our nation’s thirst for oil for decades,” said Arnesen, adding that it’s only fair that Louisiana get get some kind of revenue to put back into its coastline.

GOMESA revenue and settlement funds paid by BP after the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill were being counted on as the plan’s two largest sources of revenue.

“Louisiana has constitutionally dedicated these dollars to coastal protection and restoration, and our planning and program is built around this stream of congressionally authorized revenue,” said Chuck Perrodin, Public Information Director for the governor’s Office of Coastal Activities.

Perrodin said the White House has requested a white paper on the issue, which he said his office expects to submit soon.

Chris Dalbom, program manager for the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy, said while restoring the coast is urgent, it’s all about balance.

“If you’re doing this sort of declaration to streamline a process and to speed up a process and to make collaboration more possible in a way that it wouldn’t be in the normal routes, that’s a good thing, he said. “But if you’re trying to do things to skip steps then it can become concerning.”

Perrodin said it’s imperative to keep GOMESA’s promised payments.

“This dedicated funding to offset the effects of oil and gas leasing and production along our coast is critical to ensuring our coast remains operational and that critical national infrastructure is protected,” he said.

Arnesen agrees, pointing to then-candidate Trump’s visit to Baton Rouge after the devastating flood last August.

“He came in like he was a hero, but what has he done for our state now,” she said. “Taking these funds away is like a kick in the teeth for Louisianians.”

“Everyone told me to give him a chance, give him a chance. Well, I’ve been sitting here waiting and now he’s gotta give us a chance,” Arnesen said. “With all due respect, Mr. President, we’re drowning down here.”

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