Louisiana's wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate. That's not necessarily news.
Once considered a worthless wasteland, today the region is rightly viewed as one of the nation's environmental treasures and virtually everyone agrees it's vital to preserve the coastal wetlands. That, too, is not necessarily news.
The problem -- the news -- is this: No one seems to agree on who's to blame nor what should be done.
And at the heart of this environmental controversy, of course, is the oil and gas industry.
For decades the petroleum business has been actively producing oil and gas from the wetlands, and many point to that activity as the primary culprit in the wetlands loss.
Other officials inside and outside the oil business disagree, however, and point to natural causes and water management decisions along the Mississippi River as the primary factors behind the loss of wetlands in Louisiana.
These issues will be debated at a forum scheduled Sunday, April 16, during the AAPG annual meeting in New Orleans titled "What is the Magnitude of Louisiana Wetland Loss From Oil and Gas Activities." Experts from industry, academia, government, consulting firms and the legal profession will participate in a discussion about the causes and possible solutions to this environmental crisis.
"Virtually every group, from government agencies to industry to academia, agree there has been catastrophic loss of coastal wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta," said Patrick "Shea" Penland, a professor in the department of geology and geophysics at the University of New Orleans and moderator of the AAPG forum. "While no one disputes the dramatic wetlands loss, there is a great deal of debate about the causes of this land loss.
"The contribution of man to the crisis ranges from 10 to 90 percent," he added, "depending on whom you talk to."
Mississippi River delta wetlands make up about 40 percent of all coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states. From 1930 to 1990 southeast Louisiana has lost over 680,000 acres of wetlands. In that same time period, Penland said, western Louisiana has lost only about 1,250 acres.
Leighton Steward, retired vice chairman of Burlington Resources and a longtime resident of Louisiana, concurred that this is a significant issue.
"It is currently estimated that up to 35-square-miles of Louisiana wetlands are being lost each year -- over 20,000 acres," Steward said. "At that rate, by the year 2040 much of the existing south Louisiana delta and wetlands will be lost beneath the Gulf of Mexico.
"New Orleans, now more than 50 miles from the Gulf, will be oceanfront real estate."
Many environmentalists target the oil and gas industry as the primary human contributor to the wetlands loss, but Penland said that's a little simplistic.
"Oil and gas activity has certainly left a footprint on the landscape in the wetlands, but there are other factors as well," Penland said. "We recently completed a study of this issue on behalf of the Argonne National Laboratory, the Gas Research Institute, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Army Corps of Engineers titled 'Human and Natural Causes of Coastal Land Loss in the Mississippi River Delta.' We used geographical information systems technology, computer mapping and other techniques to objectively study the 680,000-acre loss in southeast Louisiana.
"What we concluded is that about one-third of the loss is shoreline erosion, one-third is oil and gas activity and one-third is a whole group of smaller processes, such as failed land reclamation projects, fires, roads subdivisions.
"The oil and gas industry is just one of many 'bad guys' in this crisis," he said, "but where the industry is responsible, companies need to take care of those responsibilities."
Mike Lyons, manager of environmental affairs for the Baton Rouge-based Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association, agreed that Louisiana is experiencing massive wetland loss.
"This is a problem of national significance," Lyons said. "Louisiana has more coastal wetlands than any other state in the country and it's a national treasure that allows the state to be at the top of all seafood production, wintering habitat for ducks and other important benefits. One-third of the seafood catch for the lower 48 states comes from this Louisiana habitat.
"We know from studies conducted over the last 30 years what causes this loss," Lyons continued. "Wetlands loss is two-fold."
First, it's a natural process. "We've been losing wetlands for thousands of years through the natural movement of the Mississippi River," he said.
Second, there are man-made causes for wetlands loss, and "the primary factors here are the levee system along the Mississippi River and dams throughout the Mississippi drainage system. Other factors include oil and gas activity, farming and development," he said.
Lyons said he believes most people today recognize the various causes of wetland loss -- and agencies and companies are trying to address these issues.
"However, in the past many looked at the wetlands and saw the canals dredged for oil and gas development and assumed the industry was the only culprit," he said. "But studies show that if you add up all the area of all the canals ever dredged in the 75 years of oil and gas activity in the wetlands, it would amount to about 10 percent of all wetland loss.
"Oil and gas activity is part of the problem," Lyons continued. "Industry is addressing its responsibility through dedicating oil and gas monies to wetland restoration programs, as well as employing a myriad of new technologies like directional drilling and 3-D seismic, which allows the industry to dramatically decrease its footprint on this sensitive environment."
He said it's important to remember that most of the oil and gas activity visible today in Louisiana's wetlands took place 40 or 50 years ago.
"Much of this activity happened at a time when environmental concerns were not an issue -- and we can't forget the state profited handsomely," Lyons added.
At one time, he said, almost 50 cents of every dollar that went into the state was oil and gas revenue. At the same time landowners became millionaires and the oil companies did very well, too.
"Of course, over the years we have learned it's important to protect sensitive environmental areas, and the oil and gas industry has dramatically improved its practices in accordance with this new knowledge," he said. "Today, Louisiana has a 'no net loss wetlands policy.'"
So today, when the oil industry undertakes any activity in the wetlands, the company must show the state there will be no net loss.
"If oil and gas activities do impact the wetlands, companies must mitigate that loss by directly restoring and maintaining new wetlands -- or contributing monies for reclamation projects," Lyons said.
"The industry's mission today in the wetlands is: avoid, minimize, mitigate."
While the oil and gas business wrestles with minimizing its impact on the wetlands, geologic experts emphasize that the primary factors behind the loss of coastal wetlands are natural causes and river management that has interfered with natural processes.
Jim Coleman, a Boyd professor with Louisiana State University's Coastal Studies Institute, said there has been marsh loss in coastal Louisiana since long before man ever inhabited the area.
"We know from buried peats throughout the delta plain that marshes have formed and disappeared," Coleman said. "This natural phenomena occurred due to such processes as subsidence, sea level rise, delta switching, biological components, and storms and currents."
Concurrently, sediments carried down the Mississippi piling up along the coast built wetlands.
Steward agrees that wetlands loss occurred long before man came on the scene.
"Every time the Mississippi River changed its course," Steward said, "the old delta would sink under its own weight."
Then, about 100 years ago the first major, man-made impact on the wetlands occurred when the government began river management projects on the Mississippi River to prevent spring flooding.
"The Mississippi drains about 40 percent of the United States and part of southern Canada," Steward said. "All the sediment from this massive area used to flow down the river and form new delta."
However, he added, dams along the Mississippi's tributaries and levees have dramatically reduced the sediment load necessary to maintaining the health and vibrancy of the wetlands.
"In addition, as Murphy's Law would have it, we have trapped the river at a phase when it is dumping its reduced sediment load at the edge of the continental shelf so virtually all the sediment is settling in deep water rather than along the coast," he said. "As a result, no new soil is being added to the lower delta system." Meanwhile, the natural forces of compaction, subsidence, wave action and salt-water intrusion are eating away at the delta, he added.
"Also, about 30 percent of the water coming down the upper Mississippi is going into the Atchafalaya River and emptying into Atchafalaya Bay," he said, "where there is new delta being built by sediment dumping into shallow water."
Scratch on the Surface?
Steward used the Nile River to make his point that natural causes and river management projects are the primary culprits behind wetlands loss in Louisiana.
"The Nile delta is sinking due to sediment starvation," he said. "The Nile delta was relatively stable for over 7,000 years, because sediment carried down the river continued to replenish the delta as the older soil compacted and subsided. But since 1964 the Aswan High Dam has drastically reduced the silt in the river water that previously maintained the delta."
It's predicted that about 2,350 square miles of coastal wetlands will be lost by the year 2100, Steward added.
"The situation is similar to that occurring in the Mississippi River delta," he said, "but in the Nile delta there are no oil field canals at which to point the finger."
Coleman said wetlands loss is a complex issue.
"There's no doubt the oil and gas industry has had an impact on the wetlands," Coleman said. "However, you can't simply correlate canal density with wetland loss. One industry is not the only problem. It's more complicated than that."
The oil industry has worked hard to minimize its impact as more has become known about how the wetlands form and how they deteriorate.
"I've worked with many oil companies active in the wetlands, and it's been my experience they are doing a good job of policing themselves today," Coleman said. "Even upper level management are aware of the need to be a good environmental citizen."
Steward observed that "all kinds of people have tried to measure and speculate on the wetlands loss caused by the oil and gas industry.
"But the bottom line," he said, "is oil and gas development is literally just a scratch on the surface. It is insignificant in comparison to the fact that the delta is compacting and sinking, as do all deltas around the world, but we also have cut off the Mississippi Delta's sediment supply.
"The oil industry recognizes its responsibility and has changed its practices to minimize damage," he added. "People who tend to blame damages on industrial sources have a biological background and are only concerned with the surface. However, scientists with a geologic background also understand the subsurface processes at work and what happens to a deltaic system over geologic time."
On the Other Hand ...
Of course, not everybody cares what has happened over thousands of years and are focusing on the impact the oil industry has had on the wetlands. One such person is Houma, La.-based attorney Michael St. Martin.
St. Martin has successfully sued oil and gas companies, and been awarded thousands in damages.
Last year a federal judge awarded St. Martin and his wife $240,000 in damages following a breach of contract suit the couple filed against Mobil Exploration and Producing and Phillips Petroleum., claiming the companies had failed to maintain canals and levees on the St. Martin's 2,400-acre Terrebonne Parish property in Mandalay Marsh.
In addition to the monetary damages, the judge ruled that the oil companies are responsible for the environmental cleanup.
"The oil companies' attitude is they shirk their responsibilities and rape the environment and anyone who does not like it can go to hell," St. Martin said in an interview following the ruling.
St. Martin is currently in the midst of another lawsuit on behalf of the Terrebonne Parish School Board against seven oil companies, claiming the firms failed to perform environmental cleanup of 629 acres of school board land near Mandalay Marsh.
"These companies don't deny damaging the land," St. Martin said. "They admit drilling, and they admit leaving pilings, pipes, wellheads, and digging canals and pipelines. Their only defense is it happened a long time ago. There's no statute of limitations on this kind of thing.
"In most cases oil companies just depleted the reserves and left," he continued. "A lot of them didn't so much as remove a wellhead or a piling."
Martin claims he doesn't have a grudge against big oil. In fact, he worked in the oil fields when he was young, and today he owns an oil company and is drilling in his own marsh.
"Oil and gas and the environment can get along together," he said. "I spent $750,000 extra -- it costs more money to do business in an environmentally safe way, but consumers should just learn to pay a penny a gallon more to do what's right.
"I have grandkids," he said, "and I want them to be able to see the marshes years from now."