Sustaining America’s Energy Coast
By John Hill
For thousands of years, the Mississippi River’s annual floods deposited sediment and slowly built up the deltaic lands of the Gulf Coast. Following the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the nation had a sense of united purpose: the need to control and contain the river.
At the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an internal debate ensued between two groups: one advocated damming the river and building jetties out to the edge of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS); the other warned that such measures would damage the fragile coastal environment. The jetties faction won on an argument that was strictly economical, or so they thought.
The idea was that natural scouring would occur as the sediment was sent over the edge of the OCS and into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. The scouring reduced the need for costly dredging and made it easier to maintain shipping channels.
This human interference in the river’s natural processes led to tremendous land loss along the Gulf Coast, primarily in a place called America’s WETLAND in coastal Louisiana. So far, an area of land equivalent in size to the state of Delaware has disappeared into the waters, and the land loss continues at the rate of a football field every 50 minutes.
With this alarming disappearance of land, the Gulf of Mexico encroaches northward, placing at risk hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of critical infrastructure, coastal communities, habitat for millions of waterfowl and animals and the nursery ground for marine life in the entire Gulf. Some scientists say if nothing is done to reverse the land loss, much of the protective marshland will vanish within ten years, never to be restored.
Diverse interests rely on this working coastline, and many of the original conflicts and challenges surrounding river use and restoration efforts still exist today. It is the mission of the America’s Energy Coast (AEC), an initiative of the America’s WETLAND Foundation (AWF), to resolve the conflicts and find comprehensive solutions to sustain this vital economic region and the environment on which it depends. The AEC is calling the nation’s attention to the region’s strategic value and the dire situation we face if problems are not addressed today.
Time Is Running Out
“What we have is a looming environmental and economic disaster that will be an international calamity,” says R. King Milling, chairman of the AWF. “What we are trying to do with the AEC is to get the attention of President Obama, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and the key players of the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Council on Environmental Quality and tell them that so far, the energy debate is lacking a key element: the ability to sustain both energy production and the environment in the area where we already have offshore drilling. The Gulf Coast is a laboratory, but it is on a very short time fuse.”
Because time is critical, the AWF formed the AEC to bring together interests that often have been at odds: representatives of industry, national environmental organizations, other nongovernmental organizations, state officials, leading scientists, academics and others with major coastal interests from the four offshore oil- and gas-producing states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — America’s Energy Coast.
Preserving the coastal wetlands is crucial as they provide a natural buffer against hurricanes and protect America’s Energy Coast from the physical risks of climate change.
Entergy believes that coastal wetlands, climate change and energy policy are inextricably linked. We partner on projects to restore the Gulf Coast and protect native wildlife habitats because we believe in making a difference for our communities. It’s our moral obligation to those who count on us.
Rising global temperatures caused by carbon dioxide are connecting the fate of many living in America’s energy corridor to melting ice fields and glaciers 10,000 miles away from us. Preserving the Gulf Coast will require energy policy that invests in technology to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions from coal plants and offers a global solution to carbon emissions.
We can’t let the burden of solving this crisis fall to future generations. The time for action is now.
For some 18 months, AEC leaders have met to find commonsense solutions to crucial issues facing our nation today, including:
AEC has built an action framework crucial to sustaining both the environment and energy production on the Gulf Coast, which supplies nearly 90% of the nation’s offshore energy supply and produces one-third of the seafood in the contiguous U.S.
The group also has released the “Accord for a New Sustainability of America’s Energy Coast” and specific recommendations to protect the region for the nation’s benefit.
Alternative and Conventional Sources in Energy Mix
“While the AEC agrees the U.S. needs to aggressively pursue development of alternative energies such as solar, bio-fuels and wind technology, the group also recognizes that for decades to come, we will continue to need traditional energy sources as well. A key concern is how to stay viable and meet national demands while under pressure to reduce carbon usage,” says Valsin A. Marmillion, managing director of the AWF and facilitator for the AEC Task Force.
“Any balanced national energy policy must move a progressive agenda while sustaining this vital energy coastline, because the nation needs it,” Marmillion adds.
Conflicting Policies Hamper Coast
One focus of AEC recommendations is to resolve conflicts in policy among state, local and federal agencies that impede coastal protection progress.
Dale Hall — former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who serves on the AEC Advisory Committee — conducted an internal study and issued a report on conflicting policies and missions among federal agencies. One of the issues the report addresses is that the federal government has no comprehensive approach to water resource problems, a fact that impedes progress of large-scale efforts to restore ecosystems throughout the country. Jurisdiction over water management is divided among many federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and various offices within the U.S. Departments of Interior, Agriculture and Commerce.
“Despite the fact that water resources are one of the nation’s pressing problems, there is no comprehensive approach to water management, and there are many laws passed in more recent times that counteract or conflict with older laws,” says Sidney Coffee, senior policy advisor to the America’s WETLAND Foundation, who helps direct the AEC initiative. “Jurisdictions are split, making it difficult for states to succeed at large-scale restoration efforts like those needed along the Gulf Coast.”
The Gulf Coast: A Laboratory For Sustainability
Those participating in the AEC initiative continue to set priorities and actions to address policies at every level, identify and incorporate best practices and share technological solutions within the region and throughout the world.
“Through consensus, we continue to develop recommendations to ensure both innovative energy and environmental policy,” Marmillion says. “While alternative energy sources must be developed, it won’t happen overnight. We have to develop new technologies to get more conventional energy out of areas where we’re producing it now — along America’s Energy Coast.”
The AEC is going into policy development with an evenhanded attitude, Coffee says. “We must have a balanced approach: sustainable energy production plus a sustainable environment; it cannot be either-or,” she says.
The America’s WETLAND Foundation and its AEC initiative “have come a very long way,” says AWF’s Milling, “but we will continue to fine-tune. This year, the AEC will focus on the specific issues that everyone agrees are the top priorities. That’s something we didn’t have a year ago, and the accord is a fundamental step.”
Priorities for National Energy Policy
After meeting for more than a year, the AEC Task Force came up with three major priorities for national policy:
These goals are the backdrop for the AEC’s development of its action plan, which includes:
The diverse group of AEC members, many of whom have had opposing interests in the past, all have a stake in preserving this area for both environmental and economic reasons.
“Two years ago, we didn’t even know each another,” says Mark Hurley, president of Shell Pipeline and co-chair of the AEC Steering Committee. “Now we are comfortable working together closely with one common goal in mind: coming up with a consensus of priorities for what needs to be done to sustain both energy production and the fragile environment on America’s Energy Coast that is so important to the nation.”
The critical importance of the AEC states becomes evident when, for example, a major storm causes offshore oil rigs to shut down. “Individual consumers can feel the impact within 24 hours,” Hurley says. “It takes seven to ten days for refineries throughout the nation to feel it. In just a few days, the major pipelines going to the Midwest and East Coast start running out of supplies.”
Yet industry is committed to restoring the coast. “Protection of a fragile ecosystem is a critical element of what we are doing,” Hurley adds.
Unprecedented Cooperation Is Key
Karen Gautreaux, governmental affairs director for The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana, says environmental organizations have learned to trust industry representatives and other stakeholders in the AEC.
“The discussions have been helpful to better understand that we have mutual interests and can work together on something we all care about — the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems and resources we all depend upon, not only here on the coast, but nationwide,” Gautreaux says.
Gautreaux explains that environmentalists were encouraged when industry representatives “were willing to embrace creation of a greenhouse reporting agency. We were pleased there was agreement that the issues should be recognized on a national level, and we should work together to reduce greenhouse gases.”
What the AEC has done, she says, “is create a platform for reaching common understanding and finding opportunities to pull together to save the Gulf Coast. This is very important work and will only be accomplished through extraordinary cooperation.”
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