Sen. Mary Landrieu wants to create a new government agency funded to the tune of as much as $1 billion annually to direct the long-term Gulf Coast environmental restoration that President Obama called for in his Oval Office address last week.
Some have compared the ambitious plan to the creation of a new Tennessee Valley Authority or Port Authority of New York & New Jersey -- government agencies charged with carrying out economic and environmental tasks within their regions.
Landrieu (D-La.) said overlapping responsibilities of the various state and federal agencies now involved have bogged down the decades-long effort to restore Louisiana's endangered coastal wetlands, considered essential nursing grounds for fish and shellfish and protection against hurricanes and storm surge.
Obama's speech and appointment of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to oversee the restoration effort following the BP PLC oil spill has given new urgency to what could surpass the Everglades restoration, undertaken in 2000 and now estimated to cost upward of $12.5 billion, to become the world's largest environmental rehabilitation project.
"We need $500 million to $1 billion per year to get the job done," Landrieu said. "We need fast implementation because this can't wait."
Landrieu sent Mabus a letter yesterday inviting him to accompany her on a trip to Louisiana to tour the coastline and meet with scientists and stakeholders. The letter also urged that oil and gas production revenue sharing with Gulf Coast states set to take effect in 2017 instead be implemented immediately to help fund restoration.
"To fulfill President Obama's promise to leave the Gulf Coast better than it was before the BP oil disaster, Gulf Coast states need a dedicated and robust stream of funding to restore and protect our coast for the long-term," Landrieu wrote. "In the short-term, these funds should be provided by a fair distribution of revenue from offshore oil and gas production similar to what interior states have received since 1920."
The Gulf Coast has lost more than 2,000 miles of wetlands, the remainder of which are now swimming in crude oil and eroding at the rate of a football field every 38 minutes. The loss stems from both the vast network of offshore oil and gas transmission pipelines that carve the coastline and the channelization of the Mississippi River, which has prevented currents from spreading wetland-replenishing sediments across the delta.
In a 13-page white paper Landrieu prepared in April and sent to the White House last week, the senator calls for "a new governing authority" to coordinate and expedite completion of restoration plans already sitting on the books in various stages of analysis and completion.
The proposal amounts to a vast consolidation and overhaul of existing state and federal programs to restore the coastline, maintain shipping channels and protect against flooding, many of which are now overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. The plan would transfer all these responsibilities to the new agency and assume control of virtually the entire civil works budget of the local Army Corps district, as well as programs now overseen by a myriad of other federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Interior and Agriculture departments and others.
Paul Harrison, the Environmental Defense Fund's senior director of the Mississippi River, said a new agency -- as opposed to simply a task force -- is likely needed to carry what he expects to be a 50- to 100-year project to completion, as parties come in and out of power and presidential administrations change.
Everglades restoration, for example, which is overseen by a task force and carried out by pre-existing state and federal agencies, languished during the George W. Bush administration, only to be reinvigorated under President Obama, who campaigned on the promise to renew the federal government's stalled commitment.
"As with any government institution, when you're asking them to change things, the bureaucrats will look around and say, 'Do you really mean that?' Nobody in the government ever got in trouble for not doing anything," Harrison said. "That's why you create a TVA or a Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. You create purpose under the law. Then you don't rely on having the politicians putting their shoulder into it."
Landrieu has proposed that such an agency be led by state and federal co-chairmen and immediately begin drawing up a federal-state master plan for coastal protection and restoration based on existing plans. Membership would be presidentially appointed, with Louisiana representation being recommended by the governor. Jurisdiction would cover Louisiana's nine hydrologic basins along the coastline as well as the Mississippi River watershed.
Landrieu also calls for establishing an independent science and engineering program to guide decisionmaking and address technical challenges similar to Deltares, a Dutch-based water institute that researches solutions for deltas, coastal areas and river basins.
The timing may never be better to push through such a plan, given the BP disaster and the president's call, as Landrieu said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
"What the Gulf Coast needs is a long-term restoration plan, and this is the first president that's used those words from the Oval Office," she said. "And that's music to the ears of people who are now up to their knees in oil."
Click here to read Landrieu's white paper.