Remarks at Coastal Summit 2001: Reaching to the Future August 15, 2001
I first want to extend my most sincere thanks to Mike Foster and his executive staff for having the foresight to convene this summit. Until today, the overriding question has been “When can we begin to develop a true consensus as to how to take the blueprint laid out within the four corners of Coast 2050: and turn it into a work I process?” I believe the question has now been answered.
In making this observation, I do not wish to suggest that the efforts undertaken since the publication of Coast 2050: have not achieved some remarkable successes. Indeed, much of what has been accomplished has proven that if appropriately motivated, financed, and directed, Louisiana and the United States can in fact reestablish a sustainable Coastline.
Having said that, however, once we get beyond the conceptual reconstruction of Coastal Louisiana and begin analysis of, not if, but how it must be accomplished, the challenges and obstacles magnify in number. As is always the case, the devil is in the details. At the end of the day, however, they too have to be confronted for the coastline must be redeveloped and to do so Louisiana must be prepared to implement and adopt an unwavering commitment to this end. Hopefully, this summit shall result in the formation of the cornerstone of that commitment.
There have been tow almost ephemeral impediments to our ability to achieve the necessary consensus in the past. The first I believe is that the restoration of Coastal Louisiana in a sense requires the implementation of a different mindset, a different metal discipline, a discipline which in large measure runs counter to normal political cycles of 2, 4, and 6 years. The necessarily means that decisions made today may only become a reality 10 to 20 years in the future, and many of those decisions, whether we like it or not, may conflict with existing political pressures and potentially will be contra to historic turf ownership. In short, some decisions made to meet the long-term objective of coastline stability may be construed to have adverse political consequences in the short term. I suggest to you that this point is perfectly illustrated by the recent oyster damage decision issued by the district court in Plaquemines Parish. If there were ever a case were Louisiana should have anticipated that result and acted many years ago to protect the greater interest of this state, I cannot imagine. We failed to do so. That failure resulted form our lack of resolves to make difficult long-term decisions.
The second impediment is the reality that the scope of the ultimate solution appears on its face to be so immense as to be beyond our rational grasp. For at the end of the day we face a $15 to 20 billion project funded primarily by the Federal Government, which among other things, requires fundamental change in federal water policy – a systematic massive reintroduction of the Mississippi River on to its delta. This effort will take extensive preparation and analysis, critical communication and total cooperation among government and quais-governmental agencies at both the state and federal level.
The question then must be asked, how do we transcend those impediments? How do we get beyond their presence? The simple answer is – we have no choice. There is no doubt that unless Louisiana’s Coastline is reestablished and stabilized, the state of Louisiana and this nation will face a crisis of untold cost and expense to its culture, business, commerce and population. We can no longer delude ourselves with the thought that someone else will take on these challenges. It is in our hands alone to assume that mantle of leadership.
What is the nature of the crisis? On its face, we shall lose a proportion of the state over the next 40 to 50 years equivalent in size to the state of Rhode Island. (No one dares to contemplate what happens thereafter.) I have often wondered if a similar set of circumstances were to face Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, or Virginia, how much urging would be required to garner support for Washington. But, quite frankly, we cannot whine. We have neither the time nor luxury to feel sorry for ourselves.
We, as a state, must force a consensus which will translate into a nationwide sense of urgency. A telling story needs to unfold. The true cost of failing to act, in terms of dollars, commercial impact and cultural values must be developed and documented. For the loss of geography only begins to define the problem. That it shall be an ecological disaster is clear- an ecosystem contributing 30% of the total commercial fishing harvested in the lower 48 states will be decimated. Entire related industries will disappear. Our petroleum industry will be greatly impacted. Oil and gas platforms and facilities, including pipelines, originally designed predicated upon the inherent protection for the forces of the Gulf of Mexico afforded by 40 miles of marsh, will have to be wither rebuilt or totally replaces-let’s not ever speculate as to the likelihood of extensive related environmental catastrophes.
But these results are only the tip of the iceberg. The negative impact upon our local industrial and municipal infrastructure will be even greater and have longer lasting consequences. As our coastline recedes and our industrial and municipal infrastructure becomes more vulnerable to these changes, their value will be threatened. I suggest that you only consider the factor of insurability. As the Gulf of Mexico encroaches ever closer on the industrial and urban boundaries of South Louisiana, the insurability of infrastructure will be called into question. From a pure financial standpoint, that increased exposure will wither make the cost of operation potentially noncompetitive, or if deemed uninsurable, totally non-commercial as being unable to support even a modicum of financial leverage.
Consider also the threat to existing communities built over many years on the banks of our bayous and rivers. In the past these communities have survived hurricanes and high water through the natural protection afforded by 40 to 50 miles of swamp or marsh, enhanced in some cases by the construction of levee systems. The loss of our coastline will place those communities at risk. I ask the question, “what will be the cost of extensive and ongoing levee construction, or worse, will we at the end be forced to abandon entire communities, municipal infra-structures and related businesses and industries as the only way to achieve cost synergies?
The financial consequences of failing to address this issue are not limited to South Louisiana. The state’s revenues shall diminish through the cessation of industrial activities, the shrinkage of municipalities and communities, and the erosion of taxable land. The Federal Government’s revenue streams will likewise be impacted as the CORPS of Engineers, FEMA, and the EPA, among others, diligently works to offset the effects of gradual erosion. The rest of the country will also be impacted as navigation becomes more difficult and expensive, and oil and natural gas become more costly and less predictable. The economic and commercial linkage between the adverse consequences which will unfold in Louisiana and their impact upon the economy I the rest of the country cannot be minimized. From farming in the Midwest, to the needs of the industrial East, to energy consumption in the West, South Louisiana’s natural resources play a significant role.
Finally, I suggest for just one brief moment that you focus on the changes which will occur to the culture, diversity, history and idiosyncratic lifestyle that is a part of South Louisiana. While it may be difficult to quantify that impact, while those cost may also be considered ephemeral, I would suggest to you that the loss of such a rich culture would be unacceptable in any other portion of this country.
There are those who might suggest that I am guilty of hyperbole, that these prognostications are overstated. I suggest to you that the country is true. The true cost to this state and to this country by failing to take actions necessary to reintroduce the Mississippi River on its natural delta so as to create a natural infrastructure from the growing threat from a receding coastline, will be absolutely staggering. Thos projected costs are being analyzed today- they must be quantified for it is clear that the only way to provide a rational case for the up-front expense of $15 billion is to analyze the need for that expenditure against the sum total of the potential cost of failing to act.
What must we as a state do then to direct our attention to this devastating reality? It is fair to observe today that those concerned with this issue are few and far between. In the past we have had a tendency to go to meetings attended by a relatively small group of individuals where we preach to each other. This must change.
With the support and direction of our governor, we are now hopefully in a position where we can begin to work towards the solution. We must establish the organizational structure with the appropriate personnel, expertise, mandate, and system of accountability to organize a campaign. We must identify the stakeholders and begin the process of educating them about the consequences facing their state and the union. They must be called upon to join in the effort of solidifying this consensus. Who are they? Landowners, port administrators, oil, gas and pipeline companies, utilities, communities that are truly threatened, taxing districts, insurances companies, financial institutions, and any other business or individual who would be financially and directly harmed.
National stakeholders, some of whom, such as the CORPS of Engineers, are already directly involved, must also be brought into the picture, as well as numerous powerful environmental interests. Each of these groups, to the extent not already at the table, must be invited. Undoubtedly there will be differences of opinion regarding the manner and approach, some of which will not be appreciated, but without the support of all of these individuals and groups working together it is probable that we cannot succeed.
Of greater importance, I would suggest that our political representatives in Washington and Baton Rouge have not been forced to confront these long-term problems and the long-term solution. It is imperative that we solidify the direction of all of our representatives so that they will march to the beat of the same drum. The efforts to date of our congressional representatives have been remarkable in that they have fought for greater income and capital to offset the damage that oil and gas activity has done to this sate. There is no doubt that we as a state have borne a significant and underappreciated burden. These efforts expended by our senators and house representatives; however, do not address the issue of the holistic reestablishment of Coastal Louisiana.
It is time for them to focus on the issue, for only with their support can we commence the process of engaging the rest of the nation. At present we are not taken seriously by the rest of this nation and while there may be many reasons for that, including our colorful political history, our alleged laissez-faire attitude, and idiosyncrasy, the fact remains that if we are to solve this problem we must find a way to grab the attention of our national leaders and the national government.
We have the opportunity, beginning as of today, to change our methodology. We must be gin to reorganize and establish a process by which issues and methods of resolution can be appropriately vetted, answered, discarded or adopted. We must crate a telling story designed to engage and capture the imagination. We should look where necessary to other examples of similar activities in various parts of this country-Florida, Chesapeake Bay, the Pacific Northwest-to determine whether there are lessons which might be learned and which could be utilized here.
The fact remains, however, that until Louisiana is prepared to assume the risk of ridicule, and possible the risk of failure, by forcefully presenting a picture which show the scope of the economic and ecological loss we shall face, this problem will not be resolved. It is time that we invoke the interest of a significantly larger audience; that we begin daily to focus on the size and scope of this looming problem; that we recognize that we are in a tunnel, we see the light, and it is in fact a train moving in our direction. Don’t know necessarily how to accomplish any of this from an engineering standpoint, but as of this day we must go about the business of creating a structure which will allow us to give maximum unfettered attention to these larger, albeit challenging issues.