THIBODAUX, La. (CN) – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke touted the Trump administration's plan to expand oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday, telling reporters during a brief trip to southeast Louisiana that the ramped up activity will help save the state's disappearing coastline.
Zinke made his remarks during a brief press availability held amidst three closed meetings with officials on coastal restoration efforts. The Louisiana coast has proven particularly vulnerable to erosion, some of it attributable to climate change, some to damaging hurricanes, and some to human activity.
So dire has the situation become that scientists estimate that coastal Louisiana loses about a football field's worth of land every 100 minutes.
“Louisiana is enormously important, not only to the people who love it (here) in Louisiana, but nationally,” Zinke said outside the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Thibodeaux Saturday afternoon.
But he said the fate of the coastline does not rest with stemming offshore production of oil and gas, but rather with increasing it, and enabling a longstanding federal program to funnel industry royalties to environmental protection efforts.
“Something we can all do is recognize how important offshore oil and gas exploration and production is to our national economy, and how important it is to do it right,” he added.
“Oil and gas is part of the economy. Restoration is a part of the economy," Zinke said. "The Louisiana coast is a working coast but right now it is also a disappearing coast.”
Louisiana has been the recipient of royalties from the oil and gas industry ever since the enactment of the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act.
Money from the act is the only recurring revenue set aside specifically to help rebuild Louisiana’s coast. It was created to help Gulf Coast states recover from damage caused by offshore oil and gas production, which has contributed significantly to coastal erosion.
The act was implemented in two phases. Phase I brought smaller amounts of money to rebuilding efforts, while the largest sums were expected to begin rolling in this year, as part of the beginning of Phase II.
But those revenues took a major hit in 2010, when the Obama administration enacted a moratorium of oil and gas administration in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the massive oil spill that followed, said Rep. Garrett Graves, R-La., who also attended Saturday’s meeting in Thibodeaux.
Louisiana lawmakers expected 2017 to be a banner year with an anticipated payment of about $176 million.
Then in June, the Trump administration announced it wanted to eliminate the revenue-sharing program completely.
In response, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., invited Zinke “to visit Louisiana and view the coast, learn how Louisiana uses offshore revenues for coastal restoration projects, and how cuts to those revenues would impact vulnerable regions as well as America’s energy supply chain.”
Zinke finally made the trip on Saturday, but in September the Interior Department had told Louisiana its share of the oil and gas royalties would be somewhere between $62 million and $75 million -- less than half the amount previously projected.
And because of the complicated formula used to distribute the funding, no one in Louisiana is exactly sure why the shortfall occurred.
Graves squarely placed blame for the shortfall on the Obama-era moratorium, and said the fix is to increase development of oil and gas development, and coastal export facilities, to generate more revenue.
Specifically, he spoke of the construction of new facilities that would pull gas from offshore sites to sell overseas.
Zinke agreed, opining that "more energy means more money" under the revenue-sharing program.
He also said that as secretary of Interior he is in a position to “cut through the bureaucracy” that is stalling coastal restoration projects.
Cassidy said the tax plan approved by the Senate early Saturday morning included about $100 million earmarked for coastal restoration efforts in Louisiana.
Zinke’s schedule also included a closed briefing at the Center for Coastal & Deltaic Solutions in Baton Rouge.
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