New Orleans Sues Energy Companies To Repair Its Wetlands
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, from Tegan Wendland of WWNO, originally appeared on Morning Edition.
The wetland marshes just outside the city of New Orleans act as natural buffers from storm surges during hurricanes. But like much of southern Louisiana, that land is disappearing. It’s partly due to subsistence and sea level rise—but also due to the thousands of miles of channels that oil companies have carved through the fragile marshes to get out to their rigs. Those channels have eroded and turned the buffering wetlands to open water.
Now, New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell is suing a handful of oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, for money to rebuild the marshes they helped destroy. Tegan Wendland, lead coastal report for WWNO, joins Ira to discuss why suing the energy sector could be a risky move for the city in the latest installment of The State Of Science.
Tegan Wendland is a coastal reporter at WWNO in New Orleans, Louisiana.
IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
Local science stories of really national significance. The wetland marshes just outside the city of New Orleans act as natural buffers from storm surge. But like much of southern Louisiana, that land is disappearing due to subsistence, sea level rise, and the oil and gas industry.
But now the mayor of New Orleans is suing a handful of energy companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, suing for money to rebuild the marshes they helped destroy. Here to tell us more about that is Tegan Wendland, lead coastal reporter with WWNO in New Orleans. Welcome back to Science Friday, Tegan.
TEGAN WENDLAND: What’s up, Ira? How are you?
IRA FLATOW: Fine. So what has the oil and gas industry done to the marshland around New Orleans?
TEGAN WENDLAND: So Louisiana’s entire coast is sinking and washing away. I want to just catch you on the subsistence mentioned. It’s actually subsidence–
IRA FLATOW: Oh.
TEGAN WENDLAND: –the sort of natural sinking of the land here.
IRA FLATOW: Sorry.
TEGAN WENDLAND: That’s all right. And one of the reasons is these canals. These days, there’s a lot more drilling out in the Gulf of Mexico. But there used to be a lot of rigs closer inland. And to get to those oil rigs over the past 100 years or so, companies dug these channels through our marshes. And then saltwater got into those over the years and eroded them. And that’s contributed to, by some accounts, up to 90% of the land loss that we’ve experienced here so far.
IRA FLATOW: And so how are these channels being used?
TEGAN WENDLAND: Most of them, now, have been abandoned by the companies. But there are, of course, a lot of fishermen who use them to zoom around in their boats to get out to their favorite fishing spots. But for the most part, they’re abandoned.
IRA FLATOW: So what effect on the local environment do these channels have?
TEGAN WENDLAND: Well, like I said, they’re eroding because of saltwater intrusion. And so they’re sort of contributing to the erosion of our marshes. And the marshes, particularly around the city, mostly south of the city, as natural buffers against storm surge. The more land there is between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, the safer the city is when a big storm heads our way. So as those marshes have eroded, there’s less protecting us. There’s, of course, also a big levee and floodwall system protecting the city, too, but it’s not invincible. And the marshes kind of act to protect the levees to an extent as well.
IRA FLATOW: So the mayor of New Orleans is suing the oil industry. Has this worked before? Remember the BP oil spill?
TEGAN WENDLAND: Sure. So it’s not clear how this will all pan out. There are a handful of other parishes who have also filed suits. We have parishes here, instead of counties. And they started filing these suits a couple of years ago. So they’re still winding their way through the courts. The state has also gotten involved at this point, so that kind of strengthens these cases. But even if Orleans Parish does win, it likely wouldn’t result in a ton of money. And it surely wouldn’t be enough to rebuild the many miles of marshes that have disappeared here.
IRA FLATOW: And so is this just something to make a statement, then, if they realize they’re not going to probably get all that money they need?
TEGAN WENDLAND: Well, I’m not sure the mayor would say that. She told me that she’s looking for money to restore the marshes any way that she can. The oil and gas industry is certainly not very happy about it. An industry rep told me that they’d never expect Houston, for example, to do something like this.
And they say that fewer companies are going to want to drill here in the future. I guess that’s up to us to decide whether that’s a bad thing. But the truth is, most of the development is offshore these days anyway. It’s not near shore. So I think paying for the lawyers is probably going to be the biggest challenge for the city.
IRA FLATOW: Mhm. And they’re moving forward with it.
TEGAN WENDLAND: That’s right. It’s winding its way through the courts, just like the seven– well, there’s seven total parishes who have filed suits like this. We’re one of seven, and we’re just sort of waiting to see what happens next. It could set an interesting precedent.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we’ll follow it, Tegan. We’ll have you back when something else happens, OK?
TEGAN WENDLAND: There’s always something happening down here, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: I know. It’s great down there. Tegan Wendland is a lead coastal reporter with WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks for joining us, and have a good weekend.
Katie Feather is a former SciFri producer and the proud mother of two cats, Charleigh and Sadie.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.