In The News

Blanco firm on threat to block Gulf lease sale

She says revenue needed to help protect the coast



As this year's hurricane season began Thursday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco reiterated her pledge to block the August sale of oil and gas leases in the western Gulf of Mexico -- which in August last year netted more than $283 million for the federal government's general fund -- unless Louisiana gets a substantial share of offshore revenues.

Blanco said she'd prefer that coastal oil-producing states receive "a 50 percent share of the royalties," money desperately needed to finance efforts to restore Louisiana's wetlands.

"I'm asking that the president make this his legacy to the Gulf South," she said. "It's part of his heritage. Texas is part of this Gulf South, and I think . . . it would be a fine remembrance of his presidency."

At Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, Women of the Storm, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and leaders of America's Wetland: Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana cheered as Blanco set her figurative line in the sand.

"Some might see this as an idle threat," Blanco cautioned at the event organized by Women of the Storm to sharpen the focus of the relationship between the restoration of coastal wetlands and hurricane protection as well as the reluctance of some members of Congress to visit the hurricane-torn areas of the Gulf Coast.

"They shouldn't," Blanco said. "For decades, Louisiana has made its case. We have asked for a reasonable share of outer continental shelf revenues. And we were snubbed. We were ignored.

"Challenging the OCS lease sale is more than merely getting the feds' attention. It's a way to force them to recognize our problem," she said. "That's why I plan . . . to block the August lease sale and fight the legal battle necessary to enforce Louisiana's right to protect our coast and our coastal communities."

Her stance appears to have widespread support.

A new state poll released Thursday by America's Wetland Foundation says 93 percent of people interviewed during the first week of May agreed Blanco should pay hardball with the federal government on the issue of sharing revenues from the sale of outer continental shelf leases off Louisiana's coast.

"You almost never see 90 percent of anything in a poll," said Loyola University professor Ed Renwick, who conducted the poll in which 76 percent of people surveyed said they support Louisiana providing $150 million a year to match federal funds for the next 15 years to save the state's coastal wetlands.

Landrieu, D-La., praised Blanco for "putting on the pressure."

However, "everything is negotiable," Landrieu said. "Our starting point is 50 percent of future revenues, and we'll negotiate from there."

The Gulf Coast states serve as a platform to an industry that provides jobs and economic benefits to coastal states while producing great wealth for the nation.

"But we cannot continue to bear alone the cost associated with preserving these wetlands," Landrieu said. "These wetlands, this treasure, doesn't just belong to us. It belongs to the nation. And the wealth that's created out of it and near it is extraordinary.

"Since I've been in Washington, which is only 10 years, it's gone from 2 billion (dollars) to 6 billion," she said. "Next year it will be 8 billion, and it's projected to exceed $12 billion in the near future. And Louisiana gets not a penny of that money.

"Forget the 50 percent. With a billion dollars of it, we could save our wetlands and build hurricane (Category) 5 protection levees," said Landrieu, who is trying to convince her colleagues and others of the wisdom of sharing revenues from oil and gas activity more than three miles off the state's coast.

Forgotten region?

Marshaling such support remains a daunting task.

As Louisiana enters 10th month since Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, 400 members of Congress still have not acted on the invitation of Women of the Storm to visit Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast, said Anne Milling, founder of the group created to encourage the lawmakers to visit Katrina-ravaged areas and to take them on educational tours during their visits.

According to a report issued by her organization, no members of the congressional delegations from Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, West Virginia or Wisconsin have visited Louisiana since the hurricane hit -- a fact highlighted on a U.S. map sketched on the football field at Tad Gormley Stadium. The report also cites 21 states from which no U.S. senator has visited and 19 states from which no House member has visited.

Details can be found at www.womenofthestorm.net.

"We do feel that many national elected officials have forgotten us," Milling said. "It's indeed a national disaster and deserves a national response, which we're not getting as strongly as we'd like."

Like Blanco, Landrieu and others, Milling said hurricane protection and coastal restoration are inseparable.

Plan of action

The best plan for restoring the coastline should be to stop diverting 120 million tons of Mississippi River sediment into deep Gulf waters, said University of New Orleans professor Denise Reed, who led a technical group of more than 30 scientists from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, Egypt, Australia and elsewhere during an April symposium in New Orleans.

The sediment should be used to restore the wetlands instead, she said.

Engineering the Mississippi River's flow for flood protection and navigation while allowing the natural process to move sediment around to build the coast is the long-term solution, said Reed, who shared consensus views of the scientists Thursday.

The discharge of the sediment and fresh water into the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico must end to achieve sustainable restoration of the wetland ecosystem and provide increased protection to natural environments and human developments on the Delta plain, said Hal Wanless, a member of the group and chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami.

. . . . . . .

Leslie Williams can be reached at lwilliams@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3358.

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The America's WETLAND Foundation manages the largest, most comprehensive public education campaign in Louisiana's history, raising public awareness of the impact of Louisiana's wetland loss on the state, nation and world. The America's Energy Coast initiative works to sustain the environmental and economic assets of the Gulf Coast region. The initiative is supported by a growing coalition of world, national and state conservation and environmental organizations and has drawn private support from businesses that see wetlands protection as a key to economic growth. For more information, visit www.americaswetland.com or www.futureofthegulfcoast.org.

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