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Who Destroyed the Marsh? Oil Field Canals, Coastal Ecology, and the Debate over Louisiana’s Shrinking Wetlands

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Abstract

This paper examines the environmental history of petroleum pipeline canals and their impact on wetland loss in Coastal Louisiana, and how politics and wetland science have shaped restoration efforts over time. Since the 1930s, Coastal Louisiana’s wetlands have provided America with abundant oil and gas resources. The expansion of this vital energy production and transportation corridor, however, has come with a huge environmental price tag, one that will persist for generations, long after the hydrocarbons are depleted. Louisiana has the world’s seventh largest wetlands and produces the lion share of America’s domestic oil production. Yet Louisiana’s wetlands are disappearing and have been for sometime, along with the habitat, wildlife, culture, and traditional socio-economic activities that is unique to the region. Most of this loss has occurred between the 1950s and late 1970s, the era of intense petroleum production. The reasons for this high loss rate are complex and unique, involving a mixture of both natural and human-induced changes over time. Scientists argue that one of the major causes of this wetland loss has been the long-term direct and indirect impacts of oil-led development, namely the construction of pipeline, access, and navigation canals through the marshes, barrier islands, and bays. The energy and environmental tradeoffs have been particularly challenging given the enormous oil resources produced in the region over the decades and because of the Mississippi Delta’s complex geologic structure. Understanding how the two have interacted over time raises important questions about ecological restoration and the long-term impacts of energy production on fragile landscapes.
Who Destroyed the Marsh?
Oil Field Canals, Coastal Ecology, and the Debate over Louisiana’s
Shrinking Wetlands
By Tyler Priest and Jason P. Theriot (Houston)
The State of Louisiana possesses the world’s seventh largest wetlands and 40 percent of the
coastal wetlands of the United States. These wetlands provide vital habitat for abundant
wildlife and fisheries, reduce the impact of storm surges on urban dwellings, serve as a filter
for the Mississippi River’s pollutants that might otherwise contaminate the region’s water
table, and are home to some of the most culturally diverse communities in the United States.
Unfortunately, these wetlands are disappearing rapidly. The U.S. Geological Survey esti-
mates that Louisiana lost approximately 1,900 square miles of coastal land from 1932 to
2000 and could lose another 700 square miles by 2050. By the 1990s, the sinking Louisiana
marshes accounted for 80 percent of the nation’s ongoing coastal wetland losses.1
American wetlands historian Ann Vileisis claims that “wetlands have become the most
controversial landscape in America.”2 The preponderant scientific evidence demonstrating
their ecological importance combined with widespread alarm at their ongoing destruction
has led to efforts at restoration and preservation. But such efforts have been plagued by
conflict, discord, and failure. The debate has become intense, because the stakes are so high
in preserving this fragile and critical ecosystem. In some ways, the debate mirrors that over
climate change and raises some of the same difficult questions: How do we weigh and ac-
count for the human and industrial causes of environmental change in comparison to, or
apart from, “natural” forces? What are the most feasible and effective means of reducing the
human imprint on the physical world and sustaining our environment for the future?
The rapid drowning and disintegration of the Louisiana marsh has sent people scrambling
to understand the causes and effects, so that restoration, mitigation, and compensation pro-
grams can be developed. There has long been a scientific debate over the causes of this
destruction, which in recent years has become increasingly a political debate, with the oil in-
dustry – the dominant economic engine in South Louisiana – singled out as a leading culprit.
Oil field canals, dredged by the industry to gain access to production sites and to host pipe-
lines that have transported oil and natural gas from coastal Louisiana to the rest of nation,
have certainly contributed to wetland loss. Coastal and offshore oil and gas development,
1 The coast of Louisiana is divided into two distinct geologic regions: the Deltaic Plain and the Chenier
Plain. The Chenier Plain stretches from the Sabine River on the border with Texas eastward to Vermil-
lion Bay. This wetland ridge is made up of mostly ancient shell beaches, old tree lines, and firm
marshes. Cameron Parish holds the largest area of marshland in the Pelican state. As seen on a map, the
Chenier region is slightly curved and relatively smooth, not frayed, compared to the “Birdfoot” Delta
region. Its sediment structure is more stable and therefore suffers less from natural subsidence than its
sister region to the east. These unique geological features allow the wetlands of the Chenier Plain to ab-
sorb, adapt to, and support man-made activities more naturally than in the Deltaic Plain. See G.M. Go-
mez, A Wetland Biography. Seasons on Louisiana’s Chenier Plain, Austin/TX 1998, pp. 15, 54, 182.
2 A. Vileisis, Discovering the Unknown Landscape. A History of America’s Wetlands, Washington 1997,
p. 5.
DOI: 10.1524/jbwg.2009.0016 Heading: Abhandlungen und Studien
70 Tyler Priest and Jason P. Theriot
which dates back to the 1930s, has roughly coincided with the destruction of the wetlands.3
Each year, more than 25 percent of the petroleum consumed in the United States is trans-
ported through the Louisiana wetlands from oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Coastal
Louisiana is also home to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the Louisiana Offshore Oil
Port, the nation’s premier deepwater port for offloading foreign crude imports. Casting an
eye at more than 9,000 miles of oil field canals, nearly 4,000 active platforms servicing
35,000 wells, and 29,000 miles landing across the Louisiana coast, many people have rushed
to convict the oil industry as destroyer of the marsh.4
Figure 1: Tennessee Gas Oil Field Canal, Cocodrie, Louisiana
This verdict, however, is too simple and misleading. The coastal region along the Northern
Gulf of Mexico is a complex ecosystem that has been incorporated in a multi-faceted way into
3 Scientists account for the period of most rapid land loss between 1955 and 1980, the era of intense
offshore oil activity.
4 J. Bourne, Jr., Gone with the Water, in: National Geographic 10, 2004, pp. 88-105; L.L. Carstensen
(ed.), Drawing Louisiana’s New Map. Addressing Land Loss in Coastal Louisiana, Washington 2006,
p. 36; Gomez, Wetland Biography, p. 55. For background on the history of the offshore oil and gas in-
dustry in the Gulf of Mexico, see T. Priest, The Offshore Imperative. Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in
Postwar America, College Station/TX 2007; and T. Priest, Extraction Not Creation. The History of Off-
shore Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, in: Enterprise & Society 4, 2007, pp. 227-267.
Who Destroyed the Marsh? 71
the regional economy. This includes the extensive construction of levees along the Mis-
sissippi River to support settlement, in addition to the infrastructure built for oil and gas.
Moreover, in recent years, scientists have begun to understand how dynamic changes in the
region’s geology, hydrology, and geomorphology, independent of human activity, have
contributed to wetland’s destruction. Humans and their technologies have clearly had a hand
in this destruction over time. But there are also environmental forces at work beyond human
control, and these must be taken into account in drawing historical conclusions about the
relationship between oil and gas development and the disappearance of the marsh.
The Louisiana coastal wetlands are a centuries-old product of a dynamic river and delta
system that drains 1,575,000 square miles of North America. The Mississippi River provided
the necessary fresh water, sediment, and bed load to coastal marshes, thereby counteracting
the naturally occurring subsidence and the encroachment of natural sea level rise. The Mis-
sissippi Delta changed its course several times over the last 5,000-7,000 years.5 As the river
migrated from west to east and back again multiple times, it increased wetland sedimentation
in the active “lobes” and increased wetland loss in abandoned ones.6 By the mid-20th century,
this dynamic system had been disrupted, and wetlands have since disappeared from South
Louisiana at an alarming rate.
Prior to the 1960s, only a few scientists and the small communities living along the coast
were aware of the wetland loss. The movement of all kinds of economic activity into the
wetlands took place during a time when the idea of environmental protection as we know it
did not exist and the concept of the marsh as a valuable resource in itself was not even con-
sidered. For much of human history, “cultures worldwide have invested marshes, bogs, and
swamps with a rich, dense, and mostly eerie symbolic significance as dark and chaotic places
of the earth.”7 The words “marsh” and “mire” have a long lineage in the English language as
referents to negatively perceived types of wet areas that harbored disease.
Since the earliest French settlements in New Orleans, people have continuously sought to
control the direction and frequent floodwaters of the Mississippi River.8 In the mid-19th
Century, the federal government transferred federally held wetlands to Louisiana and other
flood-prone states, so they could sell the land and generate funds for drainage and levee
building. Swamps and wetlands, it was hoped, would be turned into farmland, bringing
lightness and order out of darkness and chaos.
By the late 1870s, containing and controlling the Mississippi River, let alone draining the
swamps along its banks, seemed futile. But in the wake of the deadly 1927 flood, the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers set about constructing a major flood control system to circumvent
any future potentially disastrous floods.9 By the 1930s, the engineers had built almost a
5 J.W. Day, Jr. et al., Pattern and Process of Land Loss in the Mississippi Delta. A Spatial and Temporal
Analysis of Wetland Habitat Change, in: Estuaries 4, 2000, p. 426; R.E. Turner/D.R. Cahoon, Causes of
Wetland Loss in the Coastal Central Gulf of Mexico, Vol. I: Executive Summary, New Orleans 1987, p. 2.
6 Day et al., Pattern and Process, p. 426.
7 L. Buell, Wetlands Aesthetics, in: Environmental History 4, 2005, pp. 670-671.
8 See C.E. Colten (ed.), Transforming New Orleans and its Environs, Pittsburgh 2000.
9 See J. Barry, Rising Tide. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, New
York 1997.
72 Tyler Priest and Jason P. Theriot
thousand miles of levees along the Mississippi.10 Because of these man-made structures,
particularly the Old River Control Structure, which diverts a portion of the Mississippi’s
waters into the Atchafalaya River, and the dam-building on all the Mississippi’s main tribu-
taries, the annual flow of sediment down the Mississippi River into the delta region by the
1960s had been reduced by 60 percent.11 Seventy-five years of redirecting the Mississippi’s
natural flow has “largely halted the delta building process” along the coast.12
The first studies on the Louisiana wetlands began in the 1930s and early 1940s and fo-
cused on mapping and identifying vegetation types and wildlife habitats. Early scholars
reported on Louisiana’s shrinking wetlands and understood the main factors that contributed
to marsh deterioration: subsidence, erosion, and sea-level rise. Some of these factors were
natural, subtle, geologic processes; others were man-induced, such as sediment starvation
due to controlling the natural flow and sediment load of the Mississippi River. But not until
the 1970s, when ecologists began to substitute “wetlands” for the pejorative terms “swamp”
and “marsh,” did they begin to measure the rate and extent of wetlands loss in South Louisi-
ana. Research by Sherwood M. “Woody” Gagliano and J. L. van Beek reported land loss
rates of about 16.5 square miles/year over a 30-year period, which sparked a new wave of
scientific inquiry into explaining Louisiana’s ever-changing coastal landscape.13
Initially, scientists believed that reduced sedimentation was responsible for the disappear-
ing wetlands. New studies published in the 1980s aimed to quantify the rate of wetland loss
and identify its causes. The methods used typically involved analyzing aerial imagery, data
summaries of maps, and field investigations. This new scholarship began to show that man-
made structures, mainly navigation, access, and oil and gas pipeline canals, had a major
influence on altering wetland hydrology. The accepted interpretation noted two types of
impacts from canals: direct and indirect impacts. The direct impacts of these canals ac-
counted for the actual conversion of marshland to open water. The indirect impacts were the
“secondary or subsequent changes resulting from, for example, reductions in sediment sup-
ply or from dredging, from subsurface fluid withdrawal, or from hydrologic alterations.”14
Beginning in the 1980s, researchers noted that these canals increased in size over time, some
by more than 30 percent, depending on their location.15
10 U.S. Department of the Interior (ed.), The Impact of Federal Programs on Wetlands, Vol. II, Washing-
ton 1994, p. 145.
11 Turner/Cahoon, Causes of Wetland Loss, p. 28. For a history of the Old River Control Structure, see M.
Reuss, Designing the Bayous. The Control of Water in the Atchafalaya Basin, 1800-1995, College Sta-
tion/TX 2004, pp. 207-247.
12 U.S. Department of the Interior, Impact of Federal Programs, p. 145.
13 H.J. Walker et al., Wetland Loss in Louisiana, in: Geografiska Annaler, Series A, Physical Geography 1,
1987, p. 189; Battelle Columbus Laboratories (ed.), Environmental Aspects of Gas Pipeline Operations in
the Louisiana Coastal Marshes: Report to Offshore Pipeline Commission, Columbus 1972, p. 3.3.
14 R.E. Turner, Wetland Loss in the Northern Gulf of Mexico: Multiple Working Hypotheses, in: Estuaries
1, 1997, p. 1.
15 A 1989 study funded by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) identified 41 pipeline canals in the
Mississippi Deltaic Plain region and reported that erosion rates varied between 12 meters (approxi-
mately 40 feet) per year to 17 meters (approximately 55 feet) per year. See K.M. Wicker et al., Pipelines,
Navigation Canals, and Facilities in Sensitive Coastal Habitats: Coastal Gulf of Mexico, Volume I:
Technical Narrative, New Orleans 1989, pp. 333-339.
Who Destroyed the Marsh? 73
Figure 2: Aerial footage showing the indirect impact (ponding) of oil field canals over time
A close examination of the “Muskrat Line,” a 355-mile large diameter natural gas transmis-
sion line built by Tennessee Gas in the 1950s, and one of the largest pipelines ever con-
structed through the Louisiana wetlands, illustrates the ways in which technology not only
facilitated the transportation of petroleum through the nearly impassable marshes and
swamps but also how it reshaped the coastal environment. Much of the pipeline was laid by
dredging a 40 foot by 8 foot “flotation canal” through the marsh, which allowed for the con-
tinuous movement of pipe-laying barges and equipment. Engineers installed hundreds of
concrete bulkheads and earthworks along the pipeline canal in order to keep out boat traffic
and to protect the marsh from salt water intrusion. Over time, however, this pipeline canal
and its many tributaries have increased in width, by as much as 150 feet in some areas, while
ponding behind the spoil banks and saltwater intrusion through the outdated and weakened
bulkheads have eroded the surrounding marsh.16
In 1983, researchers from Louisiana State University compared coastal maps from 1955 and
1978 to assess wetland loss in South Louisiana and noted that scientists were “only begin-
ning to appreciate” how canals influenced local ecology. The scholars, Gene Turner, William
W. Scaife, and Robert Costanza, were some of the first to suggest that indirect impacts, such
as salt water intrusion and soil erosion, may extend decades beyond the construction of the
oil field canals themselves. In addition to quantifying the vast network of pipeline canals, the
scientists also analyzed the accompanying spoil banks that were created during the dredging
of the various canals. These spoil banks, particularly those built parallel to the coastline,
created conditions for extensive ponding and flooding that over time drowned sections of the
16 Co-author J.P. Theriot is currently working on a Ph.D. dissertation about the history of oil field canals
entitled, Tennessee Gas’ Muskrat Line: Building America’s Energy Corridor through Coastal Louisi-
ana’s Wetlands.
74 Tyler Priest and Jason P. Theriot
wetlands through altered hydrology. The scientists concluded by calling for proper mitigation
techniques in future canal projects, such as restricting or rejecting dredging permits, con-
structing weirs to limit salt water intrusion, and backfilling the canals.17
In the late 1980s, several major studies were published by scientists at LSU, the Louisiana
Universities Marine Consortium, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Minerals Man-
agement Service documenting the subtle, indirect effects over time caused by the dredging of
canals for navigation as well as oil and gas pipelines.18 These studies helped clinch federal
support of Louisiana’s restoration efforts for which the state’s U.S. senators had been lobbying
for years. In 1990, Congress enacted the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restora-
tion Act (CWPPRA) – or the “Breaux Act” after Louisiana Senator John Breaux – a joint-
venture partnership between the state of Louisiana and the federal government to fund, build,
and manage long-term restoration projects in coastal Louisiana. The Act appropriated $50
million annually for the federal government’s 75 percent share of the costs involved. Several
major restoration projects, more than half a billion dollars worth, were completed or started in
the 1990s, including the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion, the Davis Pond Freshwater Diver-
sion, the Bonnet Carre Freshwater Diversion, and dozens of smaller projects, such as creating
crevasse splays and terraces to build marsh and impoundments to protect marsh.19
By the late 1990s, as the problem continued to worsen, and as CWPPRA projects seemed
to have visible but negligible effects (the “proverbial finger in the dike”), some scientists and
observers began to turn up the heat. In 1997, Gene Turner published a controversial article in
the journal Estuaries. In his essay “Wetland Loss in the Northern Gulf of Mexico: Multiple
Working Hypotheses,” Turner argued that wetland loss resulted not from sediment starvation
and subsidence, not from controlling the Mississippi River, but from extensive coastal zone
canal construction, mostly by the oil and gas industry.20 Subsequently, in the early 2000s,
Robert A. Morton and others argued that oil and natural gas extraction was reactivating
subsurface faults near the reservoirs causing an increase in subsidence. Morton analyzed
what he called “hotspots” in Terrebonne Parish and determined that a correlation existed
between subsurface fluid withdrawal and wetland loss. He concluded that the increasing
amount of subsidence in these “hotspots” was directly attributed to the increase of oil and
gas extraction in the same area during the same period, the 1960s and 1970s.21
17 W.W. Scaife/R.E. Turner/R. Costanza, Coastal Louisiana Recent Land Loss and Canal Impacts, in:
Environmental Management 5, 1983, pp. 433-442.
18 Turner/Cahoon, Causes of Wetland Loss, Vol. I; W.H. Conner/J.W. Day, Jr. (eds.), The Ecology of
Barataria Basin, Louisiana: An Estuarine Profile. Washington 1987; Wicker et al., Pipelines; D.F.
Boesch/N.N. Rabalais (eds.), Long-Term Environmental Effects of Offshore Oil and Gas Development,
London 1987.
19 Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force and the Wetlands Conservation
and Restoration Authority (ed.), Coast 2050. Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana, Baton Rouge/LA
1998.
20 Turner, Wetland Loss, pp. 1-13.
21 R.A. Morton/G. Tiling/N.F. Ferina, Primary Causes of Wetland Loss at Madison Bay, Terrebonne
Parish, Louisiana, St. Petersburg/FL 2002; R.A. Morton/N.A. Buster/M.D. Krohn, Subsurface Controls
on Historical Subsidence Rates and Associated Wetland Loss in Southcentral Louisiana, in: Transac-
tions Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies, Vol. 52, pbl. unknown n.d., pp. 767-778.
Who Destroyed the Marsh? 75
These studies, especially Turner’s, set off a firestorm of controversy. In a letter to the New
Orleans Times-Picayune, the president of the Louisiana Land & Exploration (LLE) company
called Turner a “two-dimensional thinker,” contrasting him with “three- and four-dimen-
sional scientists” who “say these canals are responsible for about 10 percent of the prob-
lem.”22 Other wetlands scientists objected to Turner’s methodology and simple thesis, argu-
ing that complex geologic processes in the delta region could not be overlooked. Subsidence
and sea level rise were essential components to this environmental phenomenon, along with
habitat type and condition and sediment availability in a specific region. Therefore, they
argued, restoration efforts must “emphasize riverine inputs of freshwater and sediments.”23
Despite the challenges to Turner’s thesis, his view that oil companies were the ones re-
sponsible for destroying the wetlands became common currency. Landowners, private and
public, filed lawsuits against oil companies for property damage, claiming that lease agreements
obliged leaseholders to restore the marsh to its original state. Citing a lessee’s obligation to act
as a “reasonably prudent operator” under Article 122 of the Louisiana Mineral Code, plaintiffs
alleged that oil and pipeline companies had an obligation to restore dredged marshland to its
“original” state. In 2005, a Louisiana Supreme Court decision denied these claims. In a case
brought by the Terrebonne Parish School Board, a landholder, versus Castex Energy, Inc.
and other pipeline company defendants, the Court found that although it “was not unaware
of the plight of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands […] imposing an implied duty to restore the
surface that was clearly beyond the contemplation of the parties at the time they contracted is
not a legally supportable resolution to an undoubtedly difficult problem confronting our state.”24
As litigation wound through the courts, a political effort was organized to fund Louisiana
coastal restoration, based on, among other factors, the underlying assumption that oil field
canals were responsible for a percentage of the land loss. In 1997, the Coalition to Restore
Coastal Louisiana combined all the local, state, and federal restoration programs into one
management plan – Coast 2050, which attempted to look at the problem from an integrated
regional perspective, as opposed to local, pork-barrel type projects like those funded under
CWPPRA. Louisiana’s Washington political delegation hoped the federal government,
which has issued most of the oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, would pick up the
estimated $14 billion tab for Coast 2050. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu made it her mis-
sion to obtain a share of federal royalties collected from federal offshore leases to pay for it.
In August 2002, coastal restoration advocates launched “America’s Wetland,” a massive
public education initiative to spread awareness across the nation and around the world about
Louisiana’s shrinking wetlands. Shell Oil, one of the largest operators in the Gulf of Mexico,
was the major sponsor of the $10 million campaign.25 In 2006, after the destruction wrought
by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in South Louisiana, some federal royalty revenues were
pledged to the state, but the amount is far too small to fund Coast 2050 according to restora-
tion advocates.
22 Quoted in B. Streever, Saving Louisiana? The Battle for Coastal Wetlands, Jackson/MS 2001, p. 21.
23 Day et al., Pattern and Process, pp. 425-438.
24 Terrebonne Parish School Board Versus Castex Energy, Inc., Samson Hydrocarbons Company, Bois
D’Arc Corporation, Fina Oil and Chemical Company, Samson Resources Company, No. 04-C-0968,
Supreme Court of Louisiana, January 19, 2005, Decided.
25 See Streever, Saving Louisiana; Borne, Gone With the Water.
76 Tyler Priest and Jason P. Theriot
Meanwhile, scientific opinion has been moving against Turner’s thesis. In 2004, LSU ge-
ologist Roy Dokka published a pathbreaking study, sanctioned by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and using G.P.S. technology. The study showed that
for the past several decades, surveyors, floodplain managers, and levee engineers have sys-
tematically overstated elevations in coastal Louisiana. They had calculated heights using
“benchmarks” which were supposedly stable, but which, as the report noted, were them-
selves subsiding. The big, underlying cause of wetlands destruction was regional subsidence
resulting from multiple, interacting regional and local processes. Oil and gas extraction and
associated canals no doubt speed the process of marsh drowning, but according to Dokka,
they are neither the root cause (sediment and water load induced flexure of the lithosphere)
nor the proximate cause (river leveeing, which prevents sediment deposition and accretion).
In Dokka’s view, the entire region, not just the wetlands, is subsiding, due to “unrelenting
natural processes.” According to research biologist Bill Streever: “In coastal Louisiana,
where almost nothing about marsh restoration is clear, one fact stands out: elevation mat-
ters.” Dokka and a growing number of others believe that merely fixing the wetlands will not
save the coast, and this alone cannot provide adequate protection against storm surge. Says
Dokka: “Higher and still higher ocean levees will unfortunately be needed for protection of
human population if society insists on living in this dangerous environment.” In Dokka’s
study, the environment of South Louisiana is a creation of the interaction between a complex
geological, hydrological, and biological system and a complex regional economy, dominated
by oil and gas extraction, but not necessarily determined by it.
Dokka’s theory not only challenges the conventional wisdom about wetlands loss in South
Louisiana, but it challenges some of the certainties we have about the relationship between
humans and nature. Despite the alarming rate of wetlands destruction, until recently it was an
article of faith, backed by controversial scientific theories, that not only had humans dam-
aged the wetlands, but that humans had the ability to restore them. Clearly, the Louisiana
ecosystem has been re-plumbed and its “natural” hydrology and geomorphology reshaped.
But in recent years, and particularly since the storms of 2005, the emphasis has shifted from
“restoration” and discrete scientific studies focused on the mechanisms of wetland destruc-
tion to more coordinated action by scientists, policymakers, and businesses to find ways to
slow the process of destruction and protect the people, infrastructure, and economy.
A few oil companies are participating in this coordination, namely Shell Oil, the company
that has dominated offshore oil development in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1950s. Some
people dismiss the participation of Shell and other firms involved with coastal restoration as
a publicity stunt intended to deflect criticism of the industry as a destroyer of the wetlands.
Environmental advocates have openly criticized Shell for sponsoring “America’s Wetland.”
They argue that the central mission of the non-profit initiative and Shell Oil has been to pass
the liability and price tag for destroying the marsh onto the federal government and U.S.
taxpayers. The critics point to the fact that “America’s Wetland” has not explicitly acknowl-
edged the thousands of miles of oil field canals that have attributed to wetland loss over the
decades.26 On the other hand, people working in, or close to, the oil industry grumble that
26 http://houston.bizjournals.com/houston/stories/2003/07/14/story7.html, 01.12.2008; http://truevoiceof
thewetlands.org/shelloil.html, 01.12.2008.
Who Destroyed the Marsh? 77
Shell’s association with Coast 2050 is, in effect, tacit acknowledgment that pipeline canals
are leading culprits in the destruction of the wetlands. In their view, Shell’s management has
conceded too much in the service of “political correctness” and has uncritically accepted the
“junk science” produced by Eugene Turner and others.27
The oil industry’s long dominance in Louisiana business, its deep entwinement in state
politics, and the notorious corruption at all political levels in the state automatically raises
suspicions about oil company involvement in public initiatives such as Coast 2050.28 But
there is ample reason to believe that oil operators have as much to protect along the coast as
residents and therefore have a sincere interest in addressing the problem. Wetlands form a
barrier between the open Gulf and oil fields and pipelines built inland; an estimated 3,000
wells and production facilities and thousands of miles of oil and natural gas pipelines and
access canals are currently protected by marshes and barrier islands. In a 2004 congressional
testimony, Ed Landgraf, environmental coordinator for Shell Pipeline Company, stated that
coastal erosion is a “national problem with serious national implications […] National en-
ergy security can be maintained only if Louisiana’s coast is restored and preserved.”29
The massive hurricanes that ripped apart the Louisiana Gulf coast in 2005 and 2008 spot-
lighted the vulnerability of the nation’s petroleum infrastructure, most of which is located in
southern Louisiana, prompting some in the industry to recognize that the long-term cost of
inaction far outweighs the costs of wetland restoration. Within 50 years, an estimated 155
miles of what are now protected navigation waterways will be exposed to open water, lead-
ing to billions of dollars of losses in shipping and increased requirements for shoreline pro-
tection and dredging, not to mention repairing and relaying exposed pipelines. It is estimated
that three miles of wetlands can absorb one foot of storm surge, and the loss of a one-mile
strip of wetlands can increase average annual property damage by about $200,000 per acre
of wetland lost. Furthermore, as the marsh sinks, insurance rates rise.30
In his book Nature’s Economy, American environmental historian Donald Worster once
spoke of the shifting dialectical tension in American history between the “Arcadian” impulse
to discover and preserve nature’s intrinsic value and the “Imperialist” impulse to dominate
and extract value from nature.31 The Arcadian impulse operates from the assumption that
nature has its own order, its own pattern, and its own economy which humans are bound to
adapt to and respect. The Imperialist ethos, by contrast, sees nature as having no economy,
no concern for cost or efficiency, and thus it must be managed in the interest of “civilization.”
Efforts in the 1990s to “restore” the wetlands in South Louisiana may seem Arcadian in
spirit, but they can also be interpreted as an Imperialist impulse to preserve habitation in an
27 Kathy Haggar, Riparian Inc., Baton Rouge/LA, email communication to author, April 21, 2008. Ripar-
ian does “commercial physical research” for the oil industry.
28 For more on the history of oil, politics, and corruption in Louisiana, see G. Jeansonne, Leander Perez.
Boss of the Delta, Baton Rouge/LA 1977; B.M. Banta, The Regulation and Conservation of Petroleum
Resources in Louisiana, 1901-1940, PhD dissertation, Baton Rouge/LA 1981; W.M. Dodd, Peapatch
Politics. The Earl Long Era in Louisiana Politics, Baton Rouge/LA 1991; and W. Parent, Inside the
Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics, Baton Rouge/LA 2004.
29 http://www.louisianaspeaks.org/static.html, 01.12.2008.
30 Streever, Saving Louisiana?, p. 104.
31 D. Worster, Nature’s Economy. A History of Ecological Ideas, Cambridge 1977.
78 Tyler Priest and Jason P. Theriot
increasingly uninhabitable environment and to sustain methods of extraction that may no
longer be sustainable.
In the last decade, there has been a perceptible shift to a more genuinely Arcadian per-
spective regarding the environmental transformation of South Louisiana. Communities,
government officials, and businesses in the region are aware of their role as historical actors
in this transformation, but they increasingly recognize that they do not have control over it.
The best they can do is to try to accommodate the changing environment. The imperative of
“restoring the wetlands” has been replaced by the objective of “protecting the coast.” The
Cajun people who populate much of South Louisiana derive their name from the French
Acadians (exiled from Nova Scotia in 1755), and for generations they have adapted to “nature’s
economy” in their region. But the ongoing transformation of their natural surroundings may
be the biggest adaptive challenge they have ever faced.
The destruction of the Louisiana wetlands has generated human, economic, and cultural
loss. We must think about it in those terms, not as a preventable environmental tragedy for
which blame can be readily assigned. German environmental historian Joachim Radkau
cautions against environmental history as “the inexorable decline of nature as it is increasingly
subjugated by humanity,” or as “the history of a fall from grace and its unending conse-
quences.” According to Radkau, “Environmental protection today means providing for the
future – but the future is uncertain, and therein lies the dilemma. A striving for sustainability
that postulates the unending continuation of one’s own world as one imagines it, and pursues
that goal with rigid monomania, suffers from a dangerous delusion. […] In reality, even
today, the history of the environment is not completely congruent with a history of environ-
mental policy, that is, with a history deliberately and consciously created by humanity. In-
stead, at its core it remains a history of the unplanned and unexpected, of the always unstable
symbiosis between humans and nature. […] For while it may have a certain logic to believe
in the ‘End of History’ from an economic point of view – from an ecological perspective,
such an end is nowhere in sight.”32 Although it may be uncharitable to label efforts to protect
the Louisiana coast delusional, Radkau’s observations make us think about the meaning of
wetland loss in South Louisiana. This region is a hallmark example of the “always unstable
symbiosis between humans and nature” and a place where the disappearance of the wetlands
may be a minor episode in a larger historical drama. Nevertheless, the land loss in coastal
Louisiana constitutes arguably one of the greatest environmental tragedies of modern time.
The on-going political and academic debates about the causes of wetland loss and the di-
rection of restoration efforts have overshadowed the public projects that have begun the
actual rebuilding of the coast. According to a 2007 annual review published by the Louisiana
Department of Natural Resources, 711 restoration projects have been authorized since 1989
and more than 600 have been constructed. The types of projects range from freshwater
diversions to open water land terraces that trap and build up sediments.33 Although these pro-
jects represent only a tiny gain in the overall battle against coastal erosion, the coordinated
efforts and funding by state and federal agencies have shown some sign of progress. Most
32 J. Radkau, Nature and Power. A Global History of the Environment, Cambridge 2008, pp. 302-303
[originally: ibid., Natur und Macht. Eine Weltgeschichte der Umwelt, München 2000, p. 339-340].
33 D.C. Lindquist/S.R. Martin, Coastal Restoration Annual Project Reviews: December 2007, Baton
Rouge/LA 2007, p. 123.
Who Destroyed the Marsh? 79
people involved in the discussion believe that the small scale restoration projects can at best
“hold the line” in the near-term, particularly as the Gulf hurricanes increase in size, while
larger and more expensive projects, such as reintroducing Mississippi River sediment into
the dying marsh and bayous using massive pipelines, might actually make a real difference
in the long-term. The political, environmental, and financial issues involved in such projects,
however, pose enormous challenges to the lawmakers and discouraged stakeholders of
coastal Louisiana who continue to watch in disbelief as the wetlands and all that they support
– energy infrastructure, coastal communities, and wildlife habitat – slowly erode toward the
sea with each passing tide.
... Initially, local environmental advocates pointed to dredged canals and underground pumping as the principal culprits of wetland loss (Randolph, 2018). To combat these negative perceptions, oil and gas groups supported research on a wider set of factors, especially the role of sediment "starvation" due to upstream infrastructure (Priest and Theriot, 2009). By doing so, they succeeded in characterizing the sinking of the Mississippi Delta as the result of an infinitesimal number of geographically distributed actions for which nearly the whole nation was responsible. ...
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As the physical impacts of the Anthropocene begin to make themselves felt around the globe, maintaining current levels of economic prosperity, in many communities, will consume an increasing portion of public finances. This is because existing investments in property and capital will require new forms of protection if they are to continue generating stable streams of public revenue. Since Anthropocene impacts are unevenly distributed, some territories will be under more pressure than others to shift limited public spending to cope with growing levels of exposure. The sinking of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands provides a clear example of this trend of accelerating local vulnerability due to human-induced environmental change. With the bulk of state revenue tied to activities concentrated along Louisiana’s coasts, the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has launched an ambitious plan of government-backed expenditures that seek to defend the economic viability of these zones. Yet, many actions aimed at preventing immediate loss also work to secure incumbent extractive industries, such as offshore oil and gas drilling, which themselves contribute to the very vulnerabilities requiring state intervention in the first place. This paper, borrowing from the environmental sociology of Allan Schnaiberg, considers the social consequences of this dynamic, dubbed the “treadmill of protection.”
... The discussant is bringing back into discussion, as Figure 3, a scatterplot originally published by him in 1997 (Turner, 1997) that used data from the study by Britsch and Dunbar (1993) and is repeating a series of arguments already dismissed by others (e.g., Gosselink, 2001;Priest and Theriot, 2009). At the core of the discussant's modeling now and in 1997 is the finding that regression lines of land loss on canal density go through the origin, which is subsequently used to postulate that when there are no canals there is no land loss. ...
Article
Louisiana’s coastal wetlands have been disappearing at an alarming rate over the past several decades, with the greatest harm experienced by vulnerable populations (poor and racialised residents). It was not until 2005 that the state legislature responded with a much‐lauded Master Plan tasked with integrating the construction of new flood control infrastructure with wetland restoration. Seeking to unsettle this initiative, we develop a historical‐geographical materialist approach to follow the entanglements between infrastructural production and capital accumulation in Louisiana over the past several hundred years. In so doing, we present a two‐fold argument: that the making and mastering infrastructural violence has always been part of the historical unfolding of the socio‐spatial dynamics of capitalism; and that infrastructural development has played an integral role in this duality at every historical turn. The capitalist state, at both the federal and state levels, has played a vital role in producing and controlling this violence.
Chapter
Louisianas physische Grundlagen sind durch die intensive wechselseitige Beeinflussung von Wasser und festem Substrat geprägt. Im Süden ist mit den Sümpfen ein Hybridraum zwischen diesen beiden Komponenten ausgeprägt, der besonders vulnerabel gegenüber den Folgen des anthropogenen Klimawandels ist. Die Vulnerabilität gegenüber den Folgen des Klimawandels betrifft zudem die beiden Metropolregionen entlang des Mississippis New Orleans und Baton Rouge. Beide sind dabei Teil eines Raumes, der nicht zuletzt ökonomisch stark von der petrochemischen Industrie geprägt ist. Dies macht die paradoxe Situation Louisianas deutlich, einerseits wirtschaftlich stark von der petrochemischen Industrie geprägt, andererseits auch stark von den Folgen des globalen Klimawandels betroffen zu sein.
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Building on a small, yet growing body of scholarship focused on the political ecology of race and critical race studies of science and technology, this article follows the ways sediment, science, and race intersect on the grounds of environmental restoration in coastal Louisiana. Mobilizing ethnographic field work and historical research conducted with African-American communities and coastal scientists, I empirically expand upon geographer Kathryn Yusoff’s (2018) notion of the “geosocial registers” of the Anthropocene through an examination of the entwined histories of coastal engineering and racial inequality that situate contemporary debates about large scale coastal restoration projects along Louisiana’s disappearing coastline. In dialogue with critical work on the relationship between racism, science, and the constitution of the Anthropocene, I argue that coastal restoration is a geophysical and social process upon which racial inequality is forged and contested. The article concludes by considering how environmental restoration can participate in creating alternative forms of social and environmental repair by aligning the goals of coastal science with those of racial justice for communities of color living in changing coastal landscapes.
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An earlier investigation (Turner 1997) concluded that most of the coastal wetland loss in Louisiana was caused by the effects of canal dredging, that loss was near zero in the absence of canals, and that land loss had decreased to near zero by the late 1990s. This analysis was based on a 15-min quadrangle (approximately 68,000 ha) scale that is too large to isolate processes responsible for small-scale wetland loss and too small to capture those responsible for large-scale loss. We conducted a further evaluation of the relationship between direct loss due to canal dredging and all other loss from 1933–1990 using a spatial scale of 4,100 ha that accurately captures local land-loss processes. Regressions of other wetland loss on canal area (i.e., direct loss) for the Birdfoot, Terrebonne, and Calcasieu basins were not significant. Positive relationships were found for the Breton (r2=0.675), Barataria (r2=0.47), and Mermentau (r2=0.35) basins, indicating that the extent of canals is significantly related to wetland loss in these basins. A significant negative relationship (r2=0.36) was found for the Atchafalaya coastal basin which had statistically lower loss rates than the other basins as a whole. The Atchafalaya area receives direct inflow of about one third of the Mississippi discharge. When the data were combined for all basins, 9.2% of the variation in other wetland loss was attributable to canals. All significant regressions intercepted the y-axis at positive loss values indicating that some loss occurred in the absence of canals. Wetland loss did not differ significantly from the coast inland or between marsh type. We agree with Turner that canals are an important agent in causing wetland loss in coastal Louisiana, but strongly disagree that they are responsible for the vast majority of this loss. We conclude that wetland loss in the Mississippi delta is an ongoing complex process involving several interacting factors and that efforts to create and restore Louisiana’s coastal wetlands must emphasize riverine inputs of freshwater and sediments.
Article
Coastal wetland loss in Louisiana, now considered to amount to more than 100 km2/year, is receiving ever increasing amounts of attention. This loss is the result of a variety of complex interactions among a number of physical, chemical, biological, and cultural processes. Important geologic phenomena include sea-level change, subsidence, compaction, and change in location of deltaic depocenters. Of the many catastrophic events that cause erosion, the hurricane with its high energy is the most important in Louisiana. Biological factors include rates of marsh growth (especially in relation to subsidence, compaction, and saltwater/freshwater proportion) and the degradation caused by marsh fauna. During the last few decades, the human factor in wetland loss has increased drastically. The placement of dams and levees across and along the tributaries and distributaries of the Mississippi River have reduced both the amount and texture of sediment reaching the coast. In addition, canal and highway construction in the wetlands has altered drainage patterns and fluid withdrawal is causing subsidence. To date, few of the processes responsible for land loss in south Louisiana have been quantified and the data sets that do exist are often in conflict with each other and reflect multiple interactions. However, the attention now being given wetland loss will hopefully provide more definitive answers in the near future.
Article
I examined four hypotheses about causes for the dramatically high coastal wetland losses (0.86% yr−1) in the northern Gulf of Mexico: an extensive dredged canal and spoil bank network, a decline in sediments in the Mississippi River during the 1950s, Mississippi River navigation and flood protection levees, and salinity changes. Natural factors contributing to these habitat changes include eustatic sea-level rise and geological compaction, which appear to have remained relatively constant this century, although variation does occur. These four hypotheses were tested using data on land-to-water changes in 15-min quadrangle maps inventoried for four intervals between the 1930s and 1990. Land loss rates were directly proportional to changes in wefland hydrology in time and space. A linear regression of the direct losses due to dredging versus the losses due to all other factors (indirect losses) had a zero intercept and a slope that increased with time. The ratio indirect:direct land loss was highest nearest the estuarine entrance. The coastwide patterns of land loss do not appear to be affected by riverine sediment reductions over the last 60 yr. The effects of changes in wetland hydrology from dredging human-made channels and forming dredged spoil banks appear to be the most efficacious hypothesis explaning these dramatic losses. The effects of extensive human-induced changes on this coast have apparently overwhelmed the causal linkages identified in the historical re-constructionist view of deltaic gain and loss that emphasizes the role of mineral sediments. A paradigm shift is therefore proposed that emphasizes a broad ecological view as contrasted to a mostly physical view emphasizing the role of sediment supply in wetland maintenance. In this view, plants are not an ancillary consequence of strictly geological dynamics such as sediment supply but are dominant agents controlling factors relevant to coastal restoration and management efforts.
Samson Hydrocarbons Company, Bois D'Arc Corporation, Fina Oil and Chemical Company
Terrebonne Parish School Board Versus Castex Energy, Inc., Samson Hydrocarbons Company, Bois D'Arc Corporation, Fina Oil and Chemical Company, Samson Resources Company, No. 04-C-0968, Supreme Court of Louisiana, January 19, 2005, Decided.
Saving Louisiana; Borne, Gone With the Water
  • See Streever
See Streever, Saving Louisiana; Borne, Gone With the Water.
Riparian does "commercial physical research" for the oil industry
  • Kathy Haggar
Kathy Haggar, Riparian Inc., Baton Rouge/LA, email communication to author, April 21, 2008. Riparian does "commercial physical research" for the oil industry.
41 pipeline canals in the Mississippi Deltaic Plain region and reported that erosion rates varied between 12 meters (approximately 40 feet) per year to 17 meters (approximately 55 feet) per year. See K.M. Wicker et al., Pipelines, Navigation Canals, and Facilities in Sensitive Coastal Habitats
A 1989 study funded by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) identified 41 pipeline canals in the Mississippi Deltaic Plain region and reported that erosion rates varied between 12 meters (approximately 40 feet) per year to 17 meters (approximately 55 feet) per year. See K.M. Wicker et al., Pipelines, Navigation Canals, and Facilities in Sensitive Coastal Habitats: Coastal Gulf of Mexico, Volume I: Technical Narrative, New Orleans 1989, pp. 333-339.