President Trump is beginning to see his polling slip even in counties where the vote swung to him by a wide margin. That’s not surprising, as more voters come to understand that the Trump budget tears important benefits away from them. That pattern could hold firm in the coastal parishes of Louisiana. Louisiana is divided into 64 parishes, which resemble counties in terms of governmental structure and function. Support for Trump runs deep there, but the proposed Trump budget would eliminate a critical source of funding for wetlands projects aimed at buffering those very parishes from rising sea levels.
The Louisiana wetlands situation is just one area in which the Trump budget provides an opportunity to for business to support local environmental interests on issues that transcend political parties, rather than attempting to persuade voters to change their personal feelings about Trump or any other office holder.
Red state, rising seas
Once treated as mere swamps to be drained, wetlands are now recognized globally as regional economic engines and important buffers for inland communities, in addition to their value as natural habitat and their role in large scale carbon sequestration.
The Louisiana coast is particularly vulnerable to wetlands loss. As described by researchers with Tulane University, the state has suffered 80 percent of the wetlands loss in the U.S., though it is the site of only 40 percent of the nation’s remaining wetlands.
According to Tulane, parts of the state are “on track to drown” due to sea level rise in addition to other factors including inland oil and gas activities, and issues related to Mississippi River management.
In 1980, the state won federal permission to establish the Louisiana Coastal Resources Program to address the problem, but over the next 20 years the region still experienced “unprecedented land and wetlands loss” attributed to erosion and subsidence as well as sea level rise.
In 1992 the U.S. Geological Service updated the situation. The state’s three million acres of wetlands were vanishing at the rate of 75 kilometers annually, and USGS noted that reducing the rate of loss is “difficult and costly:”
“The swamps and marshes of coastal Louisiana are among the Nation’s most fragile and valuable wetlands, vital not only to recreational and agricultural interests but also the State’s more than $1 billion per year seafood industry. The staggering annual losses of wetlands in Louisiana are caused by human activity as well as natural processes…”
Hurricane Katrina added urgency to the situation. In 2007 the state legislature initiated a coastal master plan and in 2009 it ordered a “science-based study” to assess the Coastal Zone boundary, which includes part or all of 20 parishes.
As a result, in 2012 the state legislature added almost 1,900 miles to the Coastal Zone.
The law requires five-year updates and strategy assessments from participating states. The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources plan for 2016-2020 maintains wetlands and coastal hazards at high priority levels, and shifts the category of cumulative and secondary impacts from low to high.
Just last March, Tulane University published a new wetlands study highlighting the unusually rapid loss of wetlands in Louisiana. It positioned the state as a warning to the rest of the world:
With present-day relative sea-level rise (RSLR) rates among the highest in the world…coastal Louisiana may provide a window into the future for similar settings worldwide given global sea-level predictions with similar rates later in this century.
In sum, Louisiana has established a long track record of responding to wetlands loss for its impact on the economic well-being of the state and the very survival of its coastal communities, regardless of which party holds the White House.
The Trump budget proposal
Against this backdrop, consider that the state of Louisiana weighed in for Trump at a cumulative rate of 58 percent in the 2016 presidential election cycle. The New York Times provides a breakdown showing that some of the heaviest margins occurred in parishes along the coastline, including 88 percent in Cameron, 78 percent in Vermillion and 76.7 in Terrebonne.
Nevertheless, the Trump budget proposal would cut Louisiana off from an important source of additional wetlands protection funding. The funding derives from the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA). In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, GOMESA provides for enhanced revenue sharing from offshore drilling leases, for Louisiana and three other Gulf Coast states.
As described on NOLA.com, the state relies heavily on GOMESA royalties to fill the gaps in its long term coastal management plans:
Louisiana expects to collect $420 million from those royalties over the next three years, which amounts to nearly 17 percent of the $2.5 billion the state plans to spend on coastal efforts over that period.
Another $36 million from the arrangement was expected to flow directly to coastal parishes each year.
These fund allocations disappear in the latest budget to emerge from the White House.
The Americas Wetland Foundation was among the organizations to react to the Trump budget proposal, and their response is interesting. Rather than highlighting the impact of sea level rise and the connection to climate change that would come from inaction, in a June 5 press release AWF underscored the role of wetlands in protection critical infrastructure and other assets that play a vital role in the national economy, including energy infrastructure:
States like Louisiana that host onshore the offshore energy production and distribution which supplies so much of the oil and gas consumed throughout the United States also incur the impacts of those activities.
Those impacts go beyond sea level rise:
As the BP oil spill demonstrated, as our working coast provides benefits to the entire nation, we bear the risk to our environment and communities associated with supporting America’s energy security.
Ironically, AWF points out that the Trump Administration recently wrote a letter to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards underscoring the economic value of wetlands:
“We appreciate the significance of Louisiana’s coastal area for energy production, fisheries, recreation, and other resources and we also recognize that ongoing land loss in Louisiana negatively impacts these valuable resources.”
When news of the Trump budget proposal first surfaced last month, local officials also skirted the climate change issue to focus on economics. The Advocate cites Republican U.S. Representative Garret Graves, who pushed back strongly:
“If you care about offshore production, you need to do revenue sharing to help address some of the concerns that states have and some of the historic impacts” of the oil and gas industry, Graves said.
Eliminating GOMESA revenue sharing, Graves said, is evidence of “a real policy inconsistency.”
Republican U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy also weighed in:
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy called the proposal to end revenue sharing a “deal breaker.”
“Any cuts to coastal restoration efforts or GOMESA are short-sighted,” he said. “I will not only oppose cuts to the revenue sharing program, but continue to work to expand it for the Gulf Coast.”
The economic solution
And so, a wide range of Louisiana stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry, local communities and environmental organizations come to share common ground in opposing the Trump budget proposal.
In the wake of the Trump pullout from the Paris climate agreement, hundreds of U.S. cities and businesses have declared their determination to continue supporting the global accord, along with a growing number of states.
As of this writing Louisiana is not one of those states, but the GOMESA issue has provided it with a compelling economic reason to jump on board.
The loss of GOMESA funding would be painful, but Louisiana has the potential to find other sources, especially if U.S. states and cities are committed to reducing their carbon emissions.
In a carbon-saturated world, Louisiana could draw in revenues by selling carbon offsets, positioning its wetlands as a massive carbon sink — and making a sound economic case for restoring and expanding this valuable natural resource.
Image: via lacoast.gov (Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act).