‘We can’t drill our way out’: Environmental bill could move coastal restoration away from oil money in Louisiana

The wetlands in Barataria, Louisiana (Hayley Starshak/MEDILL)

By Hayley Starshak
Medill Reports

The landscape in southeast Louisiana changes every day – literally. In Barataria, Louisiana, just 20 miles south of New Orleans, that situation on the ground could not be clearer. What Google Maps shows as a field of land is now mostly open water. The coast in southeast Louisiana is eroding at such a high rate that even modern technology can’t keep up with the pace. Canals cut by the oil and gas industry for exploration and extraction are a major  driver of the  erosion. 

Erosion in Louisiana accounts for 80% of the country’s wetland land loss, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS estimates Louisiana could potentially lose its wetlands entirely in as few as 200 years if erosion continues at the same rate. The wetlands and barrier islands in Louisiana are not only important for wildlife, but also serve as a buffer between hurricanes and the major cities. 

Unless action is taken  to reverse the land loss, irreversible ecological, economic and cultural losses  will occur, community leaders  and  experts note. Perhaps ironically, the main source of funding for protection  efforts  is the same oil and gas industry that experts  blame for causing the  damage. But  proposed federal legislation would change that, providing funding to curb erosion and rebuild land while also addressing other ecological challenges. 

The Mississippi River Restoration and Resilience Initiative would provide a coordinated pathway for federal funding for environmental restoration and ecological projects in states along the entire Mississippi River,  stretching down to Louisiana where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. 

This spring the Mississippi was named by American Rivers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting rivers, as the sixth-most endangered river in the country, based on pollution, habitat loss, climate change and other problems. 

“The Mississippi River is an internationally important river ecosystem and an ecological lifeline for North America,” says American Rivers’ report, which calls for passage of the  MRRRI bill. “The Mississippi River has always provided abundant food, drinking water, natural resources, paths for travel and cultural and economic wealth. However, we have failed to conserve, protect and restore that river which provides so much for us.”

Funds for states and tribes 

The bill was introduced last year by Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota’s 4th District. It is currently in the subcommittee for Water Resources and the Environment in the House of Representatives. 

The bill seeks to spend $300 million in both 2022 and 2023 as well as “such sums as may be necessary” every year after that. 

The MRRRI is considered a “non-regulatory” initiative, meaning the bill does not introduce new environmental standards or enforcement policies. Instead, the bill is aimed at providing federal funding to projects currently lacking sufficient federal support. The bill lists 10 states where projects would be eligible for funding: Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin. 

The MRRRI would also give federally recognized tribal governments the authority to directly receive funding.  

Raleigh Hoke, campaign director for Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit coastal restoration organization headquartered in New Orleans, believes this legislation should be able to get bipartisan support. 

“It’s really about providing a framework and a coordinating body to help provide funding towards restoration projects,” Hoke said. “It feels like something that everyone can agree with, because it’s not about introducing new regulations. It’s just getting resources to the region, and resources that other places like the Great Lakes or Chesapeake Bay already have.”

Regional approaches to environmental restoration

The MRRRI follows the “successful model” of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, according to McCollum’s website. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay Program work to coordinate funding for ecological projects for the states in each region. 

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, established in 2009, had received over $3.8 billion in funding  as of 2021. 

President Joe Biden’s recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act pledged another $1 billion, spread to $200 million per year, in funding to the GLRI. 

“Congress is the engine that keeps us running,” said Chris Korleski, the director of the Great Lakes National Program Office in the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the GLRI. 

“You can’t do this work without funding,” he said. 

Over 460,000 acres of habitat have been “protected, restored or enhanced” through the initiative, according to the GLRI website. GLRI also claims its work restoring local fish populations has benefited the Great Lakes’ fishery industry, valued at $7 billion, according to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission

We’ve done a tremendous amount of work, but I’d be lying to say we are almost done. Even with the generous funding we have, we can’t get to everything,” Korleski said. “We prioritize and focus our resources where they’re most needed.” 

The MRRRI’s goal is to provide a similar pathway to funding for projects all along the Mississippi River, not only in one region of the country. 

Many of the problems along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast originate upriver. Fertilizer runoff from the Great Lakes region flows into tributaries and down the Mississippi River. It flows into the Gulf of Mexico, changing the natural chemistry of the delta. 

This nutrient pollution – namely, phosphorus and nitrogen – creates a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico off  Louisiana’s coast, where marine life can’t survive due to low oxygen levels. The nutrients from runoff cause algae blooms to form and take oxygen from the water. In 2021, the dead zone measured over 6,330 square miles according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The dead zone has been devastating to Louisiana’s seafood industry, worth $2.4 billion, according to Louisiana Fisheries Forward. The MRRRI lists addressing the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone as one of the purposes for the legislation.  

Louisiana and coastal restoration 

Currently, many states along the Gulf of Mexico lack a federally funded plan for coastal and habitat restoration. 

Restoration projects in Louisiana are currently developed through the Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast. The master plan is a 50-year plan to restore coastal Louisiana, at a cost of about  $50 billion. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a state agency, released its first master plan in 2012, with updates due every five years. 

“Louisiana as a small state, we’re not particularly politically powerful,” Hoke said. “So how are we paying for coastal restoration? Right now it’s primarily through oil and gas money.”

According to Healthy Gulf, almost 70% of the master plan is funded by the oil and gas industry, including settlements from the BP oil spill. However, BP disaster settlement payments are only mandated through 2032. 

“There’s  no real direct revenue source,” according to Hoke, for most of the coastal restoration plan. “And oftentimes, when it gets funding, it’s actually disaster money from flood events or hurricanes. So it’s not necessarily there every year.”

Hoke claims long-term funding, independent of the oil industry, is necessary to stop the increasing rate of land loss occurring in Louisiana.  

“Ultimately, we can’t drill our way out of the coastal crisis and the climate crisis, and we can’t disaster our way out of protecting our communities from disasters,” Hoke said. “We need to have proactive investments.” 


Hayley Starshak is a graduate journalism student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @HStarshak