By Claire Sullivan, Louisiana Illuminator
While political battles waged on over the budget and cultural issues at the Capitol, those competing to be Louisiana’s next governor found common ground Friday in a coastal forum.
The five candidates present at the New Orleans event hosted by the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana expressed support for the state’s $50 billion coastal master plan. They also discussed how they would replace dwindling BP oil spill settlement dollars and address negative impacts of sediment diversion projects.
In Louisiana politics, the coast is a rare consensus point.
“So much of our population, so much of our industrial base and our economy is based along the coast, that not investing in coastal restoration and protection is simply not an option,” Gov. John Bel Edwards, a term-limited Democrat, said in a press conference last month.
Edwards lauded the passage of the $50 billion plan to restore Louisiana’s coast and bolster hurricane resistance over the next 50 years. The plan lays out projects to rebuild lost land, create storm surge barriers, increase shoreline protection and raise homes and businesses.
And though Edwards’ potential replacements share his support of the coastal program, they’re inheriting a state heading toward a cut-off for the plan’s main funding source. 80% of coastal projects are funded by BP oil spill settlement funds, and that money will dry up in 2031.
The next administration will be tasked with finding a replacement for those funds.
Mandeville Republican Rep. Richard Nelson’s plan to do that fits into the larger thrust of his campaign. He said Louisiana needs to attract people and businesses to the state, following the path of Florida and Texas, to build the tax base needed to fund the coastal projects.
“You’re not gonna be able to pay to save the coast if you have a state that’s shrinking and an economy that’s not keeping up,” Nelson said.
Allowing money from industry to stay in the hands of local governments — instead of making them “go to Baton Rouge and beg for it” — would ease hurricane recovery, he said.
Former business lobby head Stephen Waguespack, a Republican, said wind farms and carbon sequestration could bring billions of dollars to Louisiana. Some of that, he said, should be allocated to coastal projects.
Waguespack and others emphasized the need to secure funding from the federal government.
“We have to work together to make sure the federal government sees what we see,” Waguespack said. “That this coastal area is critical to the country’s economic viability. If coastal Louisiana dies, it’s not just Louisiana that suffers.”
Candidates were also united in their support for the controversial Mid-Barataria and Mid-Breton sediment diversion projects. These efforts have long faced vocal opposition from shrimpers and oyster harvesters, but they also promise to build back coastal land.
The coastal plan puts nearly $380 million toward mitigating the negative impacts of the diversions. Candidates suggested this money go toward compensating fishers who might have to travel out further in waters to work, invest in more refrigeration or lose some of their income.
“When you talk about mitigation, and you talk about these types of projects, you have to be genuine in engaging stakeholders,” said Shawn Wilson, the only major Democrat in the race and former state transportation secretary. He said a hallmark of his time as secretary was being the first at a public meeting and the last to leave.
The coastal master plan was praised by lawmakers while it made its way through the legislature for engaging with the public so often.
“That’s the beauty of it, that’s what’s been so great about it,” Waguespack said. “That beauty will be tested more than ever before when you get to these diversions.”
While candidates widely expressed support for keeping oil and gas companies in Louisiana, there was some clash over legal action against the industry.
Lake Charles attorney Hunter Lundy, an independent, lamented the impact of oil and gas canals in furthering the saltwater intrusion that kills vegetation holding together marshes.
“Mobil and Chevron and Shell, all across the marshland, the wetlands, the coast of Louisiana, there’s billions of dollars of damage to us,” Lundy said. “We need to get them to comply with the law and fix it. Let the courts decide who owes what.”
But Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican and former Shell executive, said she wants to “pause” the lawsuits against oil and gas companies to determine “who actually violated their permits and hold them accountable.”
“You don’t need an administration that’s basically declaring war on the oil and gas industry, or an attorney general that is suing the oil and gas industry without any proof… that they violated their coastal zone permits,” Hewitt said.
Despite some disagreements, the candidates presented similar visions for the future of the coastal program, recognizing Louisiana’s sinking coast as an unignorable reality.
“We’re really on the front lines of (climate change),” Nelson said. “I mean, I don’t think anyone in the country or maybe even the world experiences it like we do. We’re literally falling into the Gulf of Mexico, so every inch makes a big difference to us.”
Absent from the forum were Treasurer John Schroder and Attorney General Jeff Landry, the state Republican Party-endorsed candidate.
Landry’s campaign communications director Kate Kelly said the attorney general attends forums as his schedule allows. She said Landry “has an extensive record of supporting and protecting Louisiana’s coast.”
Schroder’s campaign said he was on official state business during the event and looks forward to working with CRCL “on the important coastal restoration challenges facing our state.”