hen Hurricane Katrina made landfall 15 years ago on Aug. 29, it left a trail of physical and social disruption. A less explored legacy, however, is Katrina’s ironic unleashing of domestic energy production. The massive storm, arguably amplified by global warming and the loss of Louisiana’s critical coastal wetlands, actually led to increased oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

I hope to show in this article how the alignment of different regimes around a common interest managed to naturalize fossil fuel extraction in even one of the most vulnerable places to global climate change and sea level rise. Katrina allowed for the ultimate greenwashing campaign for oil and gas companies to frame themselves as environmental benefactors of Louisiana’s coastal restoration program, which is funded by oil and natural gas royalties. By tying coastal restoration to the state’s fossil fuel industry, Louisiana’s precarious future is predicated on extraction, increased carbon emissions, and a secondary market of petrochemical production up and down the Mississippi River’s “Cancer Alley” fueled with inexpensive natural gas.

Louisiana, which has lost 2,000 square miles of wetlands since 1930, experiences one of the fastest rates of relative sea-level rise in the world (Törnqvist, 2020). The seas are rising while at the same time the state’s wetlands are subsiding and eroding from decades of destructive oil and gas exploration and drilling in coastal wetlands as well as federal flood levees along the Mississippi River, which prevent alluvial sediment from replenishing riverine marshes. There are somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 miles of pipeline and navigation canals that dissect Louisiana’s wetlands (Theriot, 2014), causing massive erosion through direct saltwater intrusion into estuaries and pooled water around “spoil bank” canal ridges (Turner and McClenachan, 2018). Over time, the marsh grasses die and canals widen. Additionally, billions of gallons of gas, oil and brine have been siphoned from wells, which depressurizes subterranean cavities and leads to proximal subsidence (Morton et al., 2010; Morton et al., 2006). Officials estimate that Louisiana loses a “football field” of marsh every 90 minutes, which constitutes 90 percent of the nation’s wetland loss (Couvillion, 2017). In two afternoons, Hurricane Katrina, followed three weeks later by Category 3 Rita, managed to wipe away another 200 square miles of coastline and help focus national attention on the state’s ongoing land loss plight.

Oil pipeline warning signs like this dot the coastal landscape. Louisiana hosts 50,000 miles of subterranean pipelines, according to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. Source: Kerry Maloney @travelerbroads 2017.

Today, state officials and planners tout Herculean efforts to slow coastal erosion by redirecting the Mississippi River’s sediment load into the adjacent marshes through billion-dollar diversion projects. But they conspicuously omit the role of oil and gas canals and extraction in land loss. They include no plans to refill the thousands of miles of pipeline and navigation canals widening into a fading tapestry into open sea. They make no overtures to holding polluting oil and gas companies accountable. Nor do they call for conservation of fossil fuel consumption. In fact, they encourage more drilling (Coastal, 2017b).

So How Did This Happen?

When Katrina busted through the levees of New Orleans and swept away waterfront neighborhoods along the coast, it also drowned major oil and gas production operations in the Gulf of Mexico, where nearly a third of domestic oil production takes place. If we think back to 2005, gas prices were trending upward, and America’s reliance on foreign oil was under fire for its Middle East entanglements, particularly the war in Iraq. Oil and gas industry advocates were aggressively trying to lift imposed drilling moratoria, which covers over 94 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.

Then on Aug. 28, Hurricane Katrina brought production in the Gulf of Mexico to a standstill. The storm crippled 95 percent of oil and gas production in the Gulf, which at the time accounted for 21 percent of U.S. natural gas and nearly a third of U.S domestic oil production. Imports were halted to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Platform (LOOP), the country’s largest offshore oil port, crimping 1 million barrels a day. Louisiana’s Port Fourchon, which is a major processing and service hub for the industry, suffered extensive damage as well and was unreachable by road (Theriot, 2014). Deep water facilities were likewise offline. Within days after Katrina, gas prices spiked 20 percent to $3.09 a gallon on average and doubling to $5 a gallon in some places (Caruso, 2005; Romero, 2005).

Industry advocates crowded into Washington committee rooms urging Congress to answer their long unheeded calls to lift drilling moratoria throughout federal waters in the name of energy independence. Their efforts had come up short in the 2005 Energy bill signed by Pres. Bush on Aug. 6 (2005d). But they saw a new opportunity in a monster storm and a delegation from Louisiana willing to cut a deal. Joining with other Gulf producing states, and a reservoir of national sympathy, they proposed a Faustian bargain.

That Old Saw

Louisiana hosts as much as 40,000 miles of pipeline infrastructure. While the state receives a 50/50 royalty share on oil and gas extraction within its legal boundary, it received a tiny portion of royalties between three and six miles offshore and virtually nothing beyond the 6-mile range, where much of the production in takes place. State officials had long argued for a better deal on offshore royalty collections from the federal government since the state hosted virtually all of the infrastructure to bring it onshore. The industry-friendly democratic Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu arrived in the Senate in 1997, vowing to increase Louisiana’s royalty share. A former state treasurer, Landrieu argued that Louisiana supported 90 percent of offshore development in the Gulf for more than 50 years but had “not received appropriate compensation for the use of its land and the environmental impacts of this production” (Theriot, 2014).

Louisiana's pipeline infrastructure, which includes over 10,000 miles of canals, erodes wetlands through saltwater intrusion, water "ponding" behind canal ridge banks, pipe leaks, and subsidence related to oil field extraction. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Landrieu’s repeated attempts were regularly foiled, and as late as June 2005, they stalled again after the Bush Administration balked at giving up federal royalties (2005d). She was also opposed by environmentalists and Florida officials opposed to having oil and gas platforms in view of their tourist beaches. Drilling opponents argued that giving states a bigger share of revenues would provide “too strong an incentive” for states to open their environmentally sensitive waters to drilling (Evers, 2005).

The Katrina Effect

Within a week of Katrina’s landfall, the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Pete Domenici, R-N.M., announced on Sept. 5 that he would seek legislation lifting a 25-year moratorium on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) in the Gulf of Mexico. “I'm going to go after OCS,” Domenici told reporters following a hearing on rising gas prices. He drew a rebuke from Florida’s Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who accused him of using the hurricane as an excuse to achieve an old goal (2005a). A week later on Sept. 12, the American Gas Association petitioned Congress to open the eastern portion of Gulf of Mexico to development through Lease 181. They also called for lifting the moratoria on drilling in federal-controlled Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters, which they said was implemented years ago under a different energy scenario. A proposal to drill in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was also tucked into a version of a federal budget bill under debate. Environmentalists accused drilling proponents of opportunistically taking advantage of the crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina (Amaewhule, 2005). The National Association of Manufactures countered that natural gas prices and heating oil prices were expected to rise precipitously that winter, even though new production wouldn’t be online so quickly (2005b).

At the same time, Landrieu and fellow Louisiana senator, Republican David Vitter, proposed a new royalty arrangement as part of a larger hurricane relief package. It would give Gulf states a 50 percent share of the $6 billion the federal government receives annually in royalty and leasing payments for wells in federal waters, and it would open new coastal areas using the same revenue formula (2005c). The move was thwarted by the rest of the relief request, which came in at a jaw dropping $250 billion ask that was characterized as a pork barrel laundry list of projects. The request, the Washington Post observed, cost more than the Louisiana Purchase when adjusted for inflation (Grunwald and Glasser, 2005).

Less than a week later, Hurricane Rita made landfall on the southwestern shore of Louisiana, shutting down an additional 4.8 million barrels per day of refining capacity in Louisiana and Texas (2005e).

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana as a Category 3 storm on Aug 28, 2005. Hurricane Rita followed less than four weeks later as a Category 3 on Sept. 24, 2005, hitting the southwest portion of the state. Source: National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration (NOAA).

Back in Baton Rouge, the state’s governor, Democrat Kathleen Blanco, was now dealing with the fallout of two massive hurricanes that cut through the southeast and southwest portions of the state, causing record flooding and more than 20 feet of storm surge. There was also that public relations disaster of the $250 billion federal aid request. On Oct. 18, she created the bi-partisan Louisiana Recovery Authority to direct post-storm recovery efforts.

Gov. Blanco called a special session in November to address the fallout from the storms to bolster the state’s case for federal aid and try to reset the conversation in Washington. In the session the Louisiana Legislature passed a constitutional amendment proposal, called Act 69, to dedicate any future royalties collected in the Outer Continental Shelf — should a deal ever be reached — to a coastal protection fund. The state legislature also created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) to reorganize and oversee all of the state’s ad-hoc coastal activities. This new authority was tasked with writing a long-term Master Plan for coastal protection and restoration – which would build on previous Louisiana coastal plans that were collecting dust without funding. This one, however, would prove to have legs. The CPRA drafted a 50-year, $50 billion master plan in late 2006. It was approved by the legislature the next summer (Coastal, 2007a). But it needed a funding partner.

Louisiana officials meanwhile were traveling back and forth to Capitol Hill to argue for recovery funds and generate sympathetic news coverage to combat the negative impression of that initial federal request. The conversation continued to center on capturing federal royalties on new drilling permits.

The Associated Press noted that “Hurricane Katrina has reopened a national debate on energy policy, generating new congressional support for more stringent automobile fuel economy requirements and a fresh push by the oil industry for drilling in areas now off-limits” (Hebert, 2005). Forbes added, “Katrina wasn’t all bad for the cause of oil and gas production. For political reasons, it may end up making Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf more accessible” (Helman, 2005). On Dec. 19, 2005, Alaska’s Ted Stevens tied efforts to expand OCS drilling to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) (Shields, 2005). A lobbyist with the Sierra Club noted two months later that the threat to open the ANWR and OCS was “greater than ever” this year” (Blum, 2006).

The Washington Post, which had slammed the $250 billion request, also seemed to come around. In an editorial it wrote, “Louisiana is the nation’s energy hub, ranking first in crude oil production and second in natural gas production. The Port of New Orleans is a major import-expert route, with global merchandise exports, totaling $23.5 billion in 2006. The state shouldn’t have to keep begging Washington to help it rise from the most damaging natural disaster in U.S. history (Coastal, 2007b).

Gov. Blanco highlighted the connection between the hurricane’s destruction and the loss of Louisiana’s protective marshlands. “This extreme rate of loss threatens a range of key national assets and locally important communities,” she wrote. “Pipelines, navigation channels, and fisheries as well as centuries-old human settlements and priceless ecosystems are at risk” (Coastal, 2007b).

State officials argued that a “sustainable landscape” was a prerequisite for both storm protection and “ecological restoration,” and they argued that hurricane protection must rely on “multiple lines of defense” beyond levees alone (Coastal, 2007a).

On Sept. 28, 2006, just over a year after Katrina, Landrieu formerly introduced a bill co-sponsored bill by Pete Domeninci, called the Gulf of Mexico Security Act (GOMESA), that lifted a 25-year ban on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf of the Gulf of Mexico with an increased share on new drilling for Gulf producing states. By December 2006, with the winds of Katrina at her back, Landrieu’s efforts paid off. Louisiana’s long-sought increased revenue-sharing agreement on federal oil royalties was realized. The federal government agreed to share 37.5 percent of royalties collected on the new wells with Louisiana receiving the lion’s share.

Horses graze on a disappearing patch of marsh dotted with dying cypress at Pointe-aux-Chenes, La. Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads 2017.

In November 2006, Louisiana voters approved the constitutional amendment, which dedicated GOMESA revenues to Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Trust Fund for the sole purposes of “integrated coastal protection”— which included not only coastal restoration and hurricane protection, but also improvement of infrastructure directly impacted by coastal wetland loss such as pipelines and highways.

The move marked a turning point in U.S. energy policy and unleashed the moral qualms of domestic U.S. production.  The increased revenue to Louisiana was dedicated to a newly written Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast, which pinned the state’s strategy for restoration to oil and gas production. In other words, one of the most vulnerable states to sea level rise in the world is likewise creating the very conditions causing its downfall.  

From the outset, the Master Plan’s messaging touted sustaining Louisiana’s “Working Coast” of oil and gas, petrochemicals, deep water shipping on the Mississippi River, and other industrial operations – tone deaf to the correlative emissions that such production generates (Coastal, 2007a; 2017).

Five years later -- despite assurances by Landrieu and other GOMESA supporters about safer drilling technology (2005e) – BP’s Deep Horizon oil well exploded, killing 11 workers and causing the world’s largest oil spill over 87 days. A legal settlement against BP provided Louisiana with $5 billion over 15 years, a settlement which was likely undervalued because of unstudied impacts on deep marine life by the spill – whose footprint is documented to be twice as large as previously thought (Baurick, 2020; Reuscher, 2020) The BP settlement is dedicated to Master Plan projects, including the billion-dollar river diversion projects, seen as the crown jewel in the restoration strategy.

Today, GOMESA is the only major recurring revenue stream funding the state’s now 13-year old Master Plan, which is updated every five to six years. The Master Plan, still not fully funded, is predicated on offshore oil and gas production, which also turns coastal planners into drilling advocates. The arrangement provides the fossil fuel industry talking points about its environmental stewardship as a retort to legal efforts to hold oil and gas interests culpable for habitat destruction. When a state-appointed levee authority, Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, filed suit against 97 oil and gas companies in 2013 for decades of wetland loss, then-CPRA Chairman Garret Graves said that it wasn’t part of the state’s restoration strategy (Houck, 2015; Southeastern, 2014). The state legislature quickly nullified the lawsuit in 2014. Meanwhile, several county-level (called parishes in Louisiana) lawsuits are pending with participation of the City of New Orleans. Oil and gas lobbyist Tyler Grey, who is president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, wrote a letter to the New Orleans Advocate last year, arguing that oil and gas activity benefits coastal restoration. He wrote, oil and gas activity is “the primary source of funding for hurricane protection and restoration projects that help make our communities safer and more resilient” (Gray, 2019). The arrangement effectively greenwashes oil and gas, even though the industry pays no more in royalties and fees than before. The GOMESA law simply steers existing royalty collections to Gulf states instead of the federal government.

The fishing village of Pointe-aux-Chenes, is home to the Indigenous Pointe-au-Chien tribe, that lives along Bayou Terrebonne at the edge of brackish marsh opening to Gulf of Mexico.  Credit Kerry Maloney @travelerbroads 2017

At CPRA coastal planning meetings, state officials tout proposed projects worth billions of dollars to export oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) that courses through pipelines shredding the state’s alluvial soils. Lately, state officials have been promoting Louisiana’s pipeline infrastructure to convey cheap gas from offshore wells and cracked shale – as a plentiful feedstock for LNG exports and petrochemical plant expansions along a stretch of the Mississippi River dubiously known by locals as “Cancer Alley.”

One oil export terminal project, valued at $2.5 billion, was given preliminary approval by the CPRA, even though it was forecast to impede one of the state’s planned $1.4 billion river  diversion projects that are known as the crown jewel of the master plan (Schleifstein, 2019).

Conclusion: Political Rationality

Hurricane Katrina and Rita created what Wendy Brown calls the “political rationality” for a common course of action by disparate groups (2015). They created the conditions for federal relief to Louisiana by lifting a drilling moratorium in the Gulf. Agendas to expand drilling long advocated by the oil lobby were bolstered by support of the Louisiana delegation seeking higher royalty collections in federal waters. Tying restoration to extraction not only makes the Louisiana Master Plan possible but continues to influence how restoration is envisioned. For example, in the plan’s 13 year-existence, never has it explored restoration projects that may interfere with oil and gas production. In fact, it has approved oil and gas projects that interfere with restoration projects. Nor does the Master Plan provide any messaging on energy conservation or increasing fuel economy standards. The Master Plan implicitly acknowledges sea-level rise but doesn’t utter it. It is a document interwoven with both science and politics, since it must be ratified every six years by a conservative, oil-friendly legislative body. Yet its impact extends beyond Louisiana. The success of GOMESA became a model for the Trump Administration to propose opening all federal waters to drilling through increased royalty incentives for impacted states.

In October 2017, as the CPRA was planning to scale back restoration projects due to falling petroleum prices, the governor’s coastal adviser, Chip Kline (now CPRA Chairman) said there was reason to be hopeful because U.S. Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke was about to announce the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in history: seventy-seven million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. “Zinke was here in Louisiana a couple of weeks ago, and he promised to help us move some of our much-needed coastal projects forward,” Kline said. “He gets it(Coastal, 2017b).

GOMESA is set to expire in June 2022 and is under review by Congress (2020). The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, meanwhile, is making plans to open more moratorium areas after the expiration. The Trump administration, should it be re-elected, is interested in expanding oil and gas leasing in banned areas up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coast, with the exception of the battleground state of Florida, which it conveniently exempted last month (Interior, 2018). The plan that has been called an environmental disaster.

Aerial view of Isle de Jean Charles, a shrinking isthmus that is home to the Isle deJean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe. The tribe has been in a long contest with the state about relocating inland after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined in 1998 to leave it out of the upgraded levee protection system, called “Morganza to the Gulf.” Source: Kerry Maloney @travelerbroads 2017.

We can look back to Hurricane Katrina (and Rita) as the catalyst. The storms provided a tipping point on the balance of power towards those who had long been arguing for U.S. energy independence if not dominance to free the nation from its Middle East adventures. A boom in hydrologic fracking around the same time driven by rising gas prices and a new sensibility changed the equation for U.S. domestic energy production and put the United States on a course as a net energy exporter by 2019 (Varela, 2015; Administration, 2020, Livingston, 2014) – a course that remains tentative with the collapse of the domestic gas fracking market. Environmental groups are worried that dipping demand in conventional global markets will lead to and rationalize an expansion of petrochemical production to churn out plastics in order to in order to maintain fossil fuel production and keep the industry viable. That of course which would create new problems in terms of ocean pollution and proximal chemical releases that overburden vulnerable fence line residents of Cancer Alley as well as continue sea-level rising emissions to Louisiana’s coastal detriment.  


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Ned Randolph holds a PhD in Communication from University of California San Diego and is a visiting assistant professor at Tulane University. A Louisiana native, Dr. Randolph studies the political ecology of Louisiana’s “working coast”. The inspiration for this essay occurred while the author was a PhD Fellow at the UCSD Institute for Practical Ethics.