How Much Is Your Coastline Worth?

I recently saw this demonstration of how mangroves protect shorelines from erosion.

It’s incredible how Mother Nature has developed simple tools to support biodiversity, even against the powerful forces of ocean waves. Unfortunately, we haven’t been the best stewards of these natural gifts.

WWF reports that more than 35% of the world’s mangroves are already gone. The figure is as high as 50% in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than tropical rainforests.

I am reminded of the case of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem, presented in the Al-Jazeera investigation The Disappearing Delta. Louisiana’s bayou, dubbed one of the fastest-disappearing land masses on the planet, has experienced nearly 2,000 square miles of land erased from the state’s map in the last century. Mike Tidwell summarizes the destruction:

“An area of land the size of Manhattan is subtracted from south Louisiana every 10 months – it turns to water. A football field every 30 minutes. An area the size of Delaware since the 1930’s. It’s just astonishing how much land has disappeared.”

This destruction is caused by the fossil fuel industry and their continuous exploration for more product. The clearing of vegetation along coastal habitats leads to rapid erosion, scarring the landscape forever.

Ninety-nine percent of the Isle de Jean Charles, an island once 11 miles long and five miles wide, is now underwater. “[Jean Charles was] destroyed purely by oil and natural gas,” local resident Preston Mayeaux says. “The big deep canals brought in the saltwater intrusion, then they abandoned the canals. And when they abandoned the canals system… the saltwater goes in and out in and out, killing everything, all the vegetation.”

Beyond the environmental destruction, the government now has to pay the price of awarding this precious land to oil and gas exploration. The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency (CPRA) is now trying to rebuild land with sediment from the Mississippi River in a $50 billion plan to restore the coast. The only problem? Louisiana doesn’t have that kind of money. “We can’t protect everyone from everything, and there’s an inherent vulnerability living with the coast,” says Jerome Zeringue, head of the CPRA. “Louisiana is doing what it can to participate and protect this valuable resource, but it’s a national issue and a national concern. And we need national interests to support us as well.”

But who’s responsible for the damage? The investigation goes to the disappearing wetlands at Venice gas fields, where Chevron and other major firms have operated for decades. “The oil companies should be involved in [restoration efforts]. They benefited from Louisiana, and the people of Louisiana benefited from the oil companies,” said coastal restoration expert Ryan Lambert. “It’s all a circle. You can’t just blame the oil companies. They need to come to the table and help.”

Baton Rouge attorney Don Carmouche is pursuing a several lawsuits against oil, gas and pipeline companies in two Louisiana parishes. In Plaquemines Parish, an area heavily reliant on the industry for jobs, Councilman Byron Marinovich supported the legal challenge as a way to fund sorely needed restoration efforts. “What we need to do is start building these coasts back so we don’t have these super hurricanes coming through here like Katrina,” he says. In December 2014, he lost his re-election bid to an industry-supported candidate. Not surprisingly, the elections race in Plaquemines Parish was influenced by an organization known as LOGA, or Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

Meanwhile, as Louisiana’s oil industry battles lawsuits onshore, the industry is shifting focus to offshore deep water drilling. Reporters went to the Gulf of Mexico to explore a new frontier for exploration, known as offshore fracking. “The industry has kept pretty silent about the amount of fracking that’s going on, and the federal agencies charged with issuing permits and enforcing environment laws have not revealed very much information,” says  Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network.

“We’re talking about fracking that is basically along the entire Louisiana coast,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s in shallow water, near communities…Some of the fracking was actually permitted in the Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon accident was.”

It’s a real shame that the American authorities did not learn from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the gross negligence and reckless conduct of British Petroleum. Instead, the US government continues to give leases to a fossil fuel industry making record profiles while performing extremely risky drilling and exploration. Risky for the coastal environment and everyone who depends on it.

In addition to the vulnerabilities that climate change brings to coastal communities around the world, the destruction of mangrove forests and other coastal habitats by industry, especially fossil fuel companies, leaves people at extreme risk. The costs are far too high. As seen in Louisiana, companies will destroy habitat and then leave the cleanup to the rest of us, while they’ve made incredible profits. People employed by these companies will be left jobless once they leave. Governments will cut social services to pay for the cleanup of corporate greed. We all lose.

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