WASHINGTON — The legislation signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal last week to block a lawsuit brought by a local levee agency in pursuit of energy company compensation for environmental damages from oil and gas production was the elephant in the room.
On Wednesday, advocates for combating “decades of degrading forces” that threaten the sustainability of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss ways to engage the public and build “political will” to tackle the enormous challenges. Unmentioned until reporters asked about it after the meeting was the newly enacted Louisiana legislation blocking the oil industry lawsuit that could produce some of the money needed to restore those dwindling wetlands.
Sidney Coffee, senior advisor to America’s Wetland Foundation, which sponsored Wednesday’s “Big River Works” symposium on building a “more comprehensive vision for sustainability for the Mississippi, said the foundation had not taken a position on the levee board litigation. Rather she said, the group’s goal was to ensure that the lawsuit would not delay funding and development of projects to restore the coast.
Wednesday’s conference’s sponsors included Shell and Chevron, but Coffee said there was no conflict. The oil companies, she said, support many environmental groups, including America’s Wetlands Foundation.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who gave an impassioned speech calling for the United States to make the same commitment the Netherlands has to protect its coast and safeguard residents from flooding, said she didn’t see the lawsuit against the oil industry as a boost for those efforts.
“I would continue to say that lawsuits are not going to grow the coast of Louisiana” said Landrieu, chair of the Senate Energy Committee. “To build the coast, we need smart federal, state and local partnerships with a source of revenue that does not have to come out of a 20-30 or 40-year litigation in our court system.”
“Having said that, should people be held responsible for their actions? Yes. But I am not going into the thinking that we just take everybody to court and come out the other end and the coast will be saved.”
Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, senior policy specialist for Gulf and Coastal Restoration at the National Wildlife Federation, said the issue of industry oil suits didn’t come up during the official discussions Wednesday. Gonzalez-Rothi says she sees the America’s Wetland Foundation as working to build a broad coalition of environmental groups, industry, government leaders and wildlife groups to push for sustainability efforts to protect the Mississippi River and surrounding tributaries.
At some point, when funding becomes the dominant issue, Gonzalez-Rothi said, she would not hesitate to bring up the issue of seeking more financial help from the oil and gas industry, even if energy companies are financial backers of the Wetland Foundation.
Landrieu said she helped obtain some needed help through a 2006 law that brings revenue sharing of federal royalty payments for producing states like Louisiana, starting in 2017, though she’s trying to move up the start date. The Restore Act, enacted in 2012, ensures Gulf States will get 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 BP spill, Landrieu said.
But more is needed, she said.
The Big River Works initiative by America’s Wetland Foundation released a report Wednesday that calls for sustainable agriculture to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff and functional flood plains and navigation efforts, such as local dams that support the needs of channel maintenance and river ecosystems, among other steps.
“These aims represent consensus thinking developed through research, focus groups, interviews and months of conversations,” said R. King Milling, chairman of the America’s Wetland Foundation. “They are ambitious but so is the scope of action necessary to maintain the long-term health and productivity of the Mississippi River and its Delta. We are running out of time.”