The Lens, with sponsorship from the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, hosted a panel discussion on the financing of the $50 billion coastal master plan at Loyola University, Wednesday, Aug. 20 from 6 to 8 p.m.
While much of the discussion about the master plan lately has revolved around implementation — in particular the pros and cons of river diversions — without funding, it’s all academic. The panel discussion expanded the conversation.
1) Mark Davis, Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy
2) John Driscoll, Corporate Planning Resources
3) Kyle Graham, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority
4) Douglas J. Meffert, Audubon Louisiana/National Audubon Society
5) Steve Murchie, Gulf Restoration Network: United for a healthy Gulf of Mexico
6) John Snell, WVUE/Fox 8 Moderator
I went, was impressed by the spread of good food (someone asked who made that crawfish cheesecakey thing?) and the full room but chagrined by the number of white guys in suits taking much of the air and space up front. I comforted myself with the thought that valiant men do live and work among and sometimes even resemble the scoundrels (so must remember to not be overly judgy by appearance or the number of law degrees...)
The upshot of tonight's talk was about what funding is here, what is possible and what is still needed to deal with the restoration and protection of our coast. The evening focused on the 50 year, 50 billion Master Plan Louisiana created in 2012, this number reduced from the larger 2007 200-300 million "wishlist" that had no plan attached to it.
The funding for this is meant to (mostly) come from energy companies through GOMESA and from the penalties and damages from the BP spill through RESTORE; however, the payouts for these are not decided yet and any estimates as to the final levels are wildly speculative (a phrase used by multiple panelists this evening); in other words, just to fix what has been done already by these folks, we need the money that is not in hand and may not be ever or at least not for years. These energy companies have successfully used the "tobacco companies approach" and fought every bit of science that they could in order to delay their payout to these states. Inflation is not figured into these estimates by the way and will drive the costs up significantly.
Here are some interesting points (in no particular order) brought up tonight:
• 85% of the coast is in private hands. However, alliances have been formed with landowners and NGOs to address the issues of coastal restoration, which allows for more comprehensive plans and landowners matching federal funds on some projects.
• In post-Katrina meetings held throughout the state on the question of elevation requirements for homes rebuilt, citizens chose coastal wetland restoration as a significant need for the state to address with any funds they had. This was clearly a tipping point in the level of awareness among citizens.
• The master plan does not include hurricane protection construction or any maintenance of hurricane protection so more money is necessary to be able to remain in place.
• If we acknowledge that the large payment we are hoping to receive from oil and gas through RESTORE will not be enough (Mark Davis estimates 100 million is really necessary), then we must also acknowledge that we cannot wait for another inexcusable event like the BP spill to raise whatever else is needed. So the question is how can federal, state and local concerns all be involved in funding search for the coast?
• "we are embarking on a civics adventure like no other" to figure out how to engage oil/gas, navigation and citizens to understand everyone must pay their share of the system we need. Levees and drainage were originally paid for by tax-paying citizens, not by Army Corps- we need to remember that and follow it in some cases.
•Let's not always be our own worst enemy: Steve Murchie pointed out the mid-Barataria sediment diversion project now has a coal export terminal right next to it. Hard to show Congress that we take these projects seriously, when we allow an 80 foot tall pile of coal as a neighbor to a diversion project.
•RESTORE will most likely be funded, but 5 states will share the money- politics will play a part in what is funded and where.
• BP and its 2010 spill are emblematic of the industry and NOT an outlier. That means that more spills and more delaying tactics will continue unless we change the cozy relationship that oil/gas has with its regulators. Requiring those operators to re-vegetate and clean their abandoned oil rigs is certainly a small step in the right direction.
• Oil/Gas owe the people of Louisiana something around 400 square miles of land as of now.
• Louisiana actually does fairly well in federal investment levels, both on the appropriations side and on the crisis recovery side: the Congressional delegation are strong advocates and yet, we must acknowledge that there is "Katrina fatigue" in DC. We have a reputation for "always having our hand out, but not spending wisely" which is largely inaccurate but we need to be better at documenting and demonstrating our success in DC.
• Terrebonne Parish is taxing itself to pay their share; we must ask all Louisiana citizens: are you willing to pay for this? Mark Davis again: "if candidates for office promise to not tax you, then they are also promising to not serve you."
• How can private entrepreneurial activity help? Investing in local engineering firms, selling carbon offsets, mitigation banking, building better homes and communities, encouraging social entrepreneurial competitions like Idea Village/GNOF/Propeller's annual water Challenge. We need to change the architecture of public projects which are in the hands of a few agencies and don't leave room for entrepreneurial activity: John Driscoll offered an idea around the design of diversion projects: Instead of asking bidders to bid on an already designed Army Corps project, to instead set forth the goals of each project and allow bidders to come up with their own designs.
Mark Davis: "The crisis we face in the future will be met by the quality of ideas we have laying around then; we already have better ideas than we did in 2005."
The last note to remember: Moderator Snell rightly pointed out "Why didn't we build better after Katrina?" Mark Davis using gallows humor answered: "well, we'll have another chance next time."