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Could an Emergency Declaration Help Save Louisiana’s Coastline?

The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has advised Gov. Jeff Landry that he should declare a state of emergency for coastal Louisiana. This would prod agencies to advance the state’s 50-year Coastal Master Plan.

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry should declare a state of emergency for coastal Louisiana that would direct state and local agencies to help in implementing the $50 billion, 50-year Coastal Master Plan, one of the councils advising him on his transition says.

Separately on Wednesday morning, Landry is expected to announce that he has chosen former Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove as his point man on coastal restoration and levee projects, according to two sources with knowledge of the selection process. Dove will head the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities and chair the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority board of directors.

The top CPRA position has been held by Bren Haase since July 2023. Haase, employed by the authority since its founding in 2007, served as its executive director before taking the chairmanship, and is likely to return to a position within the agency.

Dove served two four-year terms as parish president, which followed 16 years as a member of the state House of Representatives representing the Houma area. In that role, he served as chair of the House's Natural Resources Committee and represented the House on the CPRA.

Dove also owns several businesses in Houma, including Vacco Marine, an environmental vacuum-truck and tank-cleaning company, and Dove Land Corp., a real estate firm.

The agency Dove will oversee develops the master plan, a collection of coastal restoration and hurricane risk reduction projects, including construction of the controversial $2.92 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion and numerous new hurricane levees. The plan however remains largely unfunded.

"Much of Louisiana's rich ecology, economy and culture depends on a healthy productive environment," Landry's transition council on coastal and environmental issues said in a report released Friday. "However, the alarming rate of erosion of the state's coast threatens not only the economy, but also the Louisiana way of life. Communities in the coastal zone call out in unison for innovative solutions to tackle coastal issues as quickly as possible, before it becomes too late."

The proposed state of emergency would align with two executive orders issued by former Gov. John Bel Edwards, but would more directly require local governments to follow the lead of the master plan.

In April 2016, Edwards issued an executive order requiring state agencies' operations to be consistent with the master plan "to the maximum extent possible."

In 2020, he expanded that order to create the position of chief resilience officer in his office and required all agencies to appoint their own "resilience coordinators" who were to assess vulnerabilities to extreme weather and coastal change, and identify adaptation options. The resiliency provisions were written into state law by the Legislature last year.

Karen Gautreaux, chair of the Governor's Advisory Commission for Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation, and state director of the Louisiana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the state of emergency proposal was encouraging since it recognized the importance of the master plan.

She urged the governor to turn to the advisory commission, made up of stakeholders in industry, local governments and environmental groups, for advice on issues along the coast.

The council's proposals did not address the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion or the proposed $799 million Mid-Breton Sediment Diversion on the east side of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. Both are opposed by many commercial fishers and public officials in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes because their freshwater flows are expected to damage oyster growing operations and disrupt fish that live in brackish or salty waters.

Construction of the Mid-Barataria project has been challenged by opponents in both state and federal courts.

Landry spokesperson Kate Kelly pointed out that the numerous proposals presented to the governor by the 14 transition councils are just recommendations.

"They are not necessarily the opinions of the administration," she said.

The coast and environment council also recommended sending a letter of support to the state's congressional delegation calling for approval of House Majority Leader Steve Scalise's Lower Energy Costs Act. The legislation is aimed at increasing production of domestic oil and gas and other energy sources through changes in permitting processes, repealing restrictions on imports and exports of natural gas, repealing a federal natural gas tax approved earlier in the Biden administration, and reversing federal royalty and fee increases on energy production.

While that bill has broad support in the Republican-controlled House, its chances of approval in the Democrat-controlled Senate are less likely.

The council also recommended significant changes in the state's own permitting regulations that include redefining who can challenge permits, and establishing a "separate permitting queue" for public projects to reduce delays for infrastructure improvements.

Those changes could face opposition from both fishers concerned about speedy approval of future sediment and freshwater diversions, and from environmental groups that have raised concerns about local residents being shut out of permitting decisions.

"While Gov. Landry claims that the government shouldn't be picking 'winners and losers,' one of his coastal recommendations say that they would 'define' who can challenge state-issued permits," said Matt Rota, senior policy director with the Healthy Gulf environmental group. "The ability to challenge permits is one of the bedrocks of our environmental laws."

The coast and environment council also recommended pausing all newly created and unimplemented rules or policy changes at the state Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Energy and Natural Resources until a full review can be conducted. No explanation was given by the council of what that review would entail.

Many of both agencies' rules are required to track the wording of federal rules, such as new regulations governing the siting of new facilities to inject carbon underground that is captured at petrochemical plants. DEQ rules that mirror federal regulations also govern the release of toxic materials.

As attorney general, Landry challenged numerous EPA rules designed to reduce emissions in minority or poor communities, in part to address past discrimination. The state lawsuits have argued that the regulations should be color-blind and equally applied.

"We are evaluating plans and implementing policies and regulations to fulfill Gov. Landry's promise to keep Louisiana open for business and protect the rights of all Louisiana citizens while also adhering to the law," said Meagan Molter, state Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson.

The council recommended adoption of legislation that would set preferences for Louisiana-owned and -operated small businesses, and the implementation of a 6 percent set-aside for veteran-owned firms in state contracts.

Agriculture and Land Use

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Land Management transition council placed a renewed focus on improving infrastructure — bridges, inland ports and rail access — required by the state's expansive agricultural commodities at the top of its recommendations.

That council also recommended the state place a greater emphasis on dealing with improperly labeled seafood from foreign countries that ends up in grocery stores and restaurants, despite a state law requiring foreign sources be listed on labels.

"It's not only an attack on our agricultural commodities, it is an attack on a culture and heritage," the council said.

The council recommended Louisiana State University and Southern University "work collaboratively towards securing Louisiana's agriculture future and producing tomorrow's agricultural leaders."

Key land use issues addressed by this council included a recommendation that the state conduct a study of environmental and monetary impacts of converting agricultural land to use for large scale solar or wind production facilities.

"It is imperative to understand the impacts of potentially losing thousands of acres of high production agricultural lands to industrial use," the council said.

Regulation changes resulting from the study should be adopted either by state agencies or the Legislature.

It also said the state needed to assure that foreign investment in Louisiana lands doesn't affect state residents or national security.

"Serious consideration must be given to enacting state laws that address the aggressive policy of some foreign countries related to land acquisition in the U.S.," the council said.

Wildlife and Fisheries

The council also charged that the state Department of Wildlife & Fisheries was out of touch with Louisiana's hunters and fishers.

"We are losing sight of the Louisiana heritage that defines this state as the 'Sportsman's Paradise,'" the council said.

It urged improvements in the state's hunting and fishing licensing process that would be based on successful changes in other states.

(c)2024 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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