by Kellyn LaCour-Conant

Louisiana boasts one of the most erosive coasts in the world, losing an estimated 24 square miles annually over the past eighty years (Barnes et al., 2015). This rampant erosion is a cumulative effect of unsustainable resource use in the coastal region (oil and gas extraction chief amongst them), climate change, and the leveeing of the Mississippi River, which cut off southeast Louisiana from its traditional source of sedimentation and land building (McClenachan, 2013; Houck, 2015; Gotham, 2016). With the Louisiana coast in such a dire crisis directly attributed to human activity, one wonders how we’ve let things reach this point? As environmental health is linked to human health and both are threatened by this unsustainable use of the coastal zone, a more critical analysis of our coastal resource use practices is necessary for developing best management practices that benefit coastal ecosystems and residents.

Last Monday, Christine Charrier, of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resource’s Office of Coastal Management (OCM), fielded questions on Coastal Use Permitting as we continued our ongoing segment on Coastal Management.

The Louisiana Coastal Zone is comprised of 20 coastal parishes and waters within 3 miles of the coast (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. The Louisiana Coastal Zone (LA DNR, Office of Coastal Management, 2017).

Within the coastal zone, several federal, state, and local agencies oversee various uses and developments of our coastal natural resources. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), for example, is tasked with regulating impacts of navigable waters and the filling of wetlands (under Sec. 404 of the Clean Water Act), while the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality permits Wetland Assimilation Projects and pollutant discharge elimination. These are only two of the many local and state land offices, including 11 parish permitting programs, that manage coastal land use in some way. The Office of Coastal Management acts as a single point of contact for all Louisiana coastal agencies to facilitate the permitting process.

All prospective developments within the coastal zone must first be cleared by the OCM. In the preliminary permitting process, the OCM makes a determination of the development in question: outside of the coastal zone, exempt (single family residences, navigational aids, grazing, etc.), no direct and significant impact, or general permits (including the installation, replacement, maintenance, and removal of up to 100,00 linear feet of pipeline in vegetated wetlands, spoil banks, and open water areas).

When a permit is determined to be required, information on the builder, plans, adjacent landowners, and potential environmental impacts are compiled. After an impact assessment, if a development is deemed to cause undue damage to the local natural resources, alternative locations or techniques and justifications are analyzed. However, the OCM advocates for a “working coast”, and does not wish to discourage development for the sake of conservation, and attempts to balance the environmental impact of certain approved coastal uses by offsetting impacts to vegetated wetlands via mitigation banking (Figure 2) and other restoration methods.

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Figure 2. Lake Long, LA mitigation bank wetland managed by Resource Environmental Solutions, LLC. (2017)

Despite the OCM’s efforts to minimize environmental impact from coastal zone use, there are several ways in which the Office of Coastal Management’s tactics miss the mark or are overly lax. This laxness benefits developers and those benefitting from industrial development, but comes at the expense of environmental quality and functionality. For example, oil and gas related activities are considered to be of “national significance”, as Louisiana is a leading state in oil and gas production and imports (US EIA). Therefore permit applications for these activities require no justification if they are found to be problematic from an environmental impact standpoint.

Furthermore, no quotas or density caps are instituted to limit the overdevelopment of a certain region. In recent years, Maurepas Swamp has been heavily developed with oil pipelines, but the OCM deems it acceptable to continue widening this corridor rather than spread the impact out across a wider area. This approach is especially problematic, considering mitigation efforts that take place within the Maurepas Swamp area can be counteracted by continued development. Mitigation efforts can sometimes occur outside of the impacted area, but this does little to nothing for the impacted area.

An additional oversight in the OCM permitting and regulating process is allowing permit applicants to self report their environmental impact statements. While this may save time and money for OCM by limiting the number of active field biologists employed, this compromises the integrity of these environmental impact assessments, allowing developers to underreport impact. Reports by the Legislator Auditor have similarly argued this point, calling the state’s regulation and inspection of oil and gas wells inadequate (Schleifstein, 2014)(Figure 3). Lastly, by giving oil and gas companies a near carte blanche, this allows developers to escape liability for long-term coastal degradation (McGill, 2017).

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Figure 3. Current oil and gas wells, including orphaned wells, in the state of Louisiana, as reported by the Legislative Auditor (2014).

OCM representatives like Charrier argue that excessive mitigation fines to developers would impede development, but in actuality it might simply impede certain types of development. Louisiana currently obtains less than 4% of its net electricity generation from renewable sources (US EIS). With oil and gas development given preferential permitting treatment, this makes it difficult for more novel, sustainable energy options to compete with fossil fuels.

By favoring oil and gas production at the expense of wetland ecosystems and sustainable energy development, the permitting processes loses its utility and value to the public good. Science-based, adaptive management could improve the permitting process and better protect our coastal resources.

Citations

Barnes, S., Bond, C., Burger, N., Anania, K., Strong, A., Weilant, S., & Virgets, S. (2015). Economic Evaluation of Coastal Land Loss in Louisiana.

Gotham, K. F. (2016). Coastal Restoration as Contested Terrain: Climate Change and the Political Economy of Risk Reduction in Louisiana. In Sociological Forum (Vol. 31, No. S1, pp. 787-806).

Houck, O. A. (2015). The Reckoning: Oil and gas development in the Louisiana coastal zone. Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 185-296.

Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Office of Coastal Management. (2017). About OCM. http://www.dnr.louisiana.gov/index.cfm?md=pagebuilder&tmp=home&pid=89

McClenachan, G., Turner, R. E., & Tweel, A. W. (2013). Effects of oil on the rate and trajectory of Louisiana marsh shoreline erosion. Environmental Research Letters, 8(4), 044030.

McGill, Kevin. (2017). Louisiana levee board loses appeal to oil and gas in coastal wetlands lawsuit. The Associated Press. Web.

Resource Environmental Solutions, LLC. (2017). Wetlands. res.us/solutions/wetlands/

Schleifstein, Mark. (2014). Louisiana’s regulation and inspection of oil and gas wells, including ‘orphaned’ wells, is inadequate, Legislative Auditor finds. NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. Web.

U.S. EIA, Crude Oil Production, Annual-Thousand Barrels, 2010-15.

U.S. EIA, Natural Gas Gross Withdrawals and Production, Marketed Production, Annual-Million Cubic Feet, 2010-15.