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This is a guest post from Samuel Steinmetz, the Assistant Director of the Center for Environmental Law and Land Use at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Steinmetz was one of the local experts we talked to while putting together a piece on climate resiliency and adaptation for the New Orleans issue. After hearing of the creation of a massive, long term Gulf Recovery Act, we asked Steinmetz for his take. Here it is.

On Wednesday, June 9, 2010, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told Anderson Cooper on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that White House sources told him the administration would propose a "major public works act" to rebuild the battered Louisiana wetlands. Here we are, over a month after that buzz-making quote, and outside of the choice of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to oversee and develop a long-term plan for the restoration of the states affected by the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, I have not seen nor heard any specifics. Belief in such a plan might be more wishful thinking.

In talking with both conservative and liberal friends of mine in New Orleans, a true restoration plan for Louisiana’s coast would have the citizens of this state celebrating like Lombardi Gras after the Saints won the Super Bowl, with some reservations, as I will discuss below. If such an act were really in the plans, then I would have to assume that after three months of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, and an increasing distrust in anyone involved in this cleanup by the people of the Gulf coast, something might leak out to the public involving a “Gulf Recovery Act.”

Now, more than ever, there is a real chance to get something done, but I am very doubtful that our government has the political will to restore our coastal wetlands. The myriad of legal issues involved, and the inevitable discussion of who pays (especially in today's economy), would make even the most supportive politician question whether we can really move forward right now. Realize that a restoration plan would involve removing levees south of New Orleans, which not only provide protection for so many landowners in southern Louisiana, but also help with the navigability of the Mississippi River. The political fight that will occur, as lobbyists for the oil and gas industry push to keep the navigational routes open while attempting to avoid paying for the restoration Brinkley suggests will be long and difficult.

Since the 1940s, Louisiana politicians have let big oil get away with pretty much whatever it wanted in exchange for high paying jobs for Louisianans and tax revenues for the state. Oil companies owe Louisiana, but more importantly—and this will have to be sold to the American public—the citizens of this country who have thrived on cheap energy owe Louisiana as well.

While mobilizing the political will to develop and implement this act will take a national grassroots movement (see RestoreTheGulf.com), I'm not sure that even Louisianans will get behind it if it hurts the oil and gas industry. While most Louisianans are outraged at the spill, many of them are still calling for more offshore drilling. On May 6, 2010, President Obama and Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a moratorium on new deepwater oil drilling permits, and shut down 33 exploratory deepwater wells (less than one percent of the total number of wells in the Gulf).

Shortly after the moratorium was implemented, I received an email asking me to sign a letter of support to lift the ban. Some of the people who have been fighting the hardest against this moratorium are the very people whose livelihoods are being washed away by the oil gushing from the Gulf of Mexico. These are individuals and families who want a clean coast, but see no opportunities beyond the oil industry that has provided them with steady work or supplemented their income when the fishing industry could not keep them afloat.

Selling the “Gulf Recovery Act” to the American public, including those of us who call Louisiana home, will be hard, but it has to be done. If this is going to successfully go through, we need coverage in every home of the long-term devastation the oil gusher will cause. But most importantly, we need the government and BP to tell it like it is. They need to tell us how many barrels have leaked into the Gulf (provided that the well has truly stopped leaking), and what effect the oil and dispersants may have on the ecosystem.

We then need to relate the costs, both environmental and economic, to the American public. These externalities are never fully internalized, and this is something the American public needs to understand. Many people will only care for a while before they get tired of the coverage (see Hurricane Katrina). The time to act is now, and if Brinkley is right, the administration should stop dragging its feet.

For Louisianans, adaptation is not just about how we stay afloat when the waters get too high, but how we bridge the economic gap between an industry that has become so entwined with our everyday life and a new clean energy future. Until a plan addresses this economic issue, I will not be surprised if many Louisianans vote against the environment in favor of their wallet.

Photo by NASA


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