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Drilling and Able

NoDef Talks to John Barry About Coastal Restoration as "Issue of Our Lifetime"

Two Recent polls show landslide margins of public support for coastal restoration.  Within the numbers, however, is a picture of the various forces shaping the dialogue of coastal restoration. 


One of the polls, released by America’s Wetland Foundation, might well have dubbed a new catch line for the land loss fight.  74 percent of Louisianians were willing to call coastal restoration the “issue of my lifetime.”  Sidney Coffee, a senior advisor at America’s Wetland, said that in years past, the organization has found “fairly high” levels of support for the issue, “but not as high as this,” citing recent hurricanes and the BP oil spill for the heightened awareness.  Jim Kitchens, who conducted the AWF poll of 400 people across the state, highlighted the high margins found in the survey.  72 percent of those polled thought that climate change was a “serious problem” and 91 percent linked a strong coastal environment with a strong economy.  Kitchens said in an AWF press release, “When you find averages around the eighty percentiles, you better sit up and take notice.”



Another poll released last November by the Restore Louisiana Now organization showed similarly enthusiastic support for coastal restoration: 96 percent of the 1000 people surveyed agreed that Louisiana’s vanishing coast needs to be addressed.  But beyond a common acknowledgment of the problem, the two polls diverge impressively, and at times they seem to argue.  One prompt in the America’s Wetland survey read, “A unified effort is the best hope for coastal restoration and protection, not assigning blame for what has been lost.”  97 percent agreed.  Mention of “blame” could be a response to the RLN poll, which asked if “oil and gas industry contributed to the loss of natural wetlands and marshes.”  72 percent thought it had.


Another prompt in the AWF poll read: Perceived conflicts between energy production and environmental protection have become too politically divisive. To solve both problems, we need leaders to cooperate more and not engage in partisan politics. 95 percent agreed.


The poll seems to question the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East against 97 oil, natural gas, and pipeline companies.   The suit claims that the industry’s access canals have damaged wetlands and therefore increased flood risk in metro New Orleans.  Until October, John Barry was the vice-chairman of the commission, which oversees metro New Orleans levee systems on the Eastbank.  He was ousted from that board along with two other board members who supported the lawsuit.  In response, Barry created the non-profit Restore Louisiana Now, in part to provide support for the suit.  76 percent of the public supported the lawsuit in the non-profit’s poll.


Coffee said, “As far as the lawsuit is concerned, we don’t take any side.”


But in response to the conflicts referenced in the AWF poll, John Barry said, “Of course, you need to recognize that America’s Wetland gets nearly all of its funding from the oil & gas industry.”  (In 2005 The Washington Post reported that during the Foster administration, “Shell Oil, worried about its offshore drilling platforms, put up several million dollars for a PR campaign to rebrand Louisiana's marshes as ‘America's Wetland.’")


“I agree that everyone needs to cooperate,” Barry said, “Unfortunately, the industry has not voluntarily done much.”


He then mounted a defense of the lawsuit in usual, methodical fashion: “Remember, in the permits they voluntarily agreed to restore what they damaged. State law requires them to do the same. But the oil companies haven't kept their word or obeyed the law. They want taxpayers to pay to fix what they destroyed.”


In the AWF survey, 90 percent agreed that the federal government should protect “coastal areas supplying energy to the U.S.”  It stopped short of asking whether the industry should carry financial responsibility, but 94 percent agreed that “Oil companies should cooperate with local and state governments to develop solutions to our energy and environmental problems.”


When asked how that cooperation might manifest itself, Coffee mentioned a focus group held by America’s Wetland in conjunction with the survey.   The group was representative of those polled. “They said if there are damages, then yes, they should pay,” she said.  The same group called for the administration of a pool of funds from all parties involved, including navigation, energy, and government interests.


A consensus for the long term is even less clear.  72 percent agreed in the AWF poll that climate change is a serious threat.  And 65 percent agreed that “Americans must learn to consume less of everything. It is the only way we can become energy independent and protect the quality of our environment.”  Coffee said “There’s probably a bigger disconnect between politicians and the public” when it comes to a changing climate.


Yet 84 percent in the AWF poll think that we can simultaneously drill for oil and protect the coast’s environment.  Asked about the public’s apparent ambivalence about oil, Coffee said Louisianians “want it all.”


“They want the oil industry here, and they also want a healthy environment.  And they think it’s reasonable to have both at the same time.”


When Louisiana’s coastal restoration plan was drafted during the Foster administration, it was the largest environmental initiative in the history of the country.  Coffee worked with Governor Foster in the nineties to educate a public that was largely unaware of the problem in the first place.  “The public did not understand the kind of crisis of land loss that we had here.”


The leap from general unawareness to a moniker like “the issue of our lifetime” is a giant one.   As Coffee says, the problem “has many layers to it,” and each layer is massive and intricate.  She says that things get murky when the public is confronted with some of those difficulties, like the possible impact that some initiatives can have on the oyster harvest.  She also said that questions like those in Restore Louisiana Now’s poll are often designed elicit specific responses. 


Dr. Bob Thomas, the director of Loyola’s Center for Environmental Communication, said of the polls, “I think the public understands there is a problem and that it will affect their lives.  At the same time, I don't think they understand how to make improvements happen.”


Of the two organizations’ differing messages, he said, “If they (America’s Wetland Foundation) had not gotten the money from Shell and taken all the steps they have, there are no guarantees that anyone else would have (or could have) picked up the ball at the same pace.”


“Obviously, the ties among these organizations and their combined communication efforts are quite complex.”



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