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Our Dwindling Coast

Race against time pits oil business, environmental advocates

A sense of inevitability imbues the tensions between one of Louisiana’s largest industries and advocates for some of the state’s most precious resources. In the days when the oil and gas business was starting up, concerns over its impact on marshlands and waterways were not top of mind for most people. But over time, as Louisiana embraced the industry and the economic promise of mining native hydrocarbons became clear, potential harmful side effects of the business also grew more obvious. Questions over the tradeoffs involved in producing oil and gas were bound to arise.

Such questions came into sharper focus during the last few decades as Louisiana residents became increasingly aware of what major storms were doing to the state’s coastline. Clusters of barrier islands that had long shielded the mainland from the brunt of hurricanes were literally washing away, and the shallow marshes that had provided similar protection onshore were rapidly disappearing.

As Louisiana searched for long-term solutions to this coastal erosion, the role that the oil and gas industry had played in weakening natural protective barriers could not be ignored. Seismic exploration in shallow waters and the laying of thousands of miles of pipelines beneath soil and water were among the factors that had contributed to weakened storm protection and a shrinking coastline, environmentalists said.

Distrust deepened in 2010 when an offshore oil installation owned by BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and sent millions of gallons of oil gushing toward the Louisiana coast. Some of the state’s prime fishing beds are still trying to recover from the damage.

Today, wariness has become commonplace between people who make their livelihoods in the oil industry and those who feel strongly that the industry has endangered Louisiana’s future. The adversarial relationship has sometimes landed the two sides in courtrooms, as in one of the latest disputes over a Louisiana oil pipeline dubbed Bayou Bridge, slated for construction through the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Sierra Club and other groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January over the corps’ granting of a permit for construction of the project. A judge concluded that the project could cause irreversible environmental damage, and ordered a construction delay. The pipeline builder appealed the decision, and at press time a ruling by the federal appeals court was still pending.

Meanwhile, protestors sought to call attention to potentially harmful impacts of the pipeline by blocking the entrance to an industrial yard containing materials used in building the pipeline. After the pipeline owner complained that some of its equipment in another area had been vandalized, members of the Louisiana Legislature introduced a bill that would criminalize the deliberate damaging of  “critical infrastructure,” to include pipelines. Through it all, the industry has sought to embellish its public image via a media campaign touting the economic impact of the oil and gas business.

Whatever the outcome of the Bayou Bridge pipeline matter, it is certain that the relationship between the industry and those who believe the industry is harming the state will continue to be difficult.

Nearly 58,000 wells have been drilled in 10 coastal parishes during the last century, according to a recent investigative report by The Times-Picayune/NOLA.com and The New York Times. “After years of laissez-faire regulation, some consequential finger-pointing has begun in the courts, where parish governments and private landowners are for the first time suing energy companies to rebuild their land,” the report stated.

But the reporters also noted that Louisiana is in “a race against time” to save its coast. As time runs out and coastal lands dwindle, even if environmentalists should win a legal battle or two, their efforts quite possibly may prove to be too little, too late.

 


 

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