White House stands firm, pushes Congress to fund (at last) ecosystem restoration in LouisianaJune 11th, 2012 | by Jeffrey Buchanan
As Louisiana literally sinks into the Gulf of Mexico—wetlands disappearing at the rate of a football field per hour or so—it becomes imperative and even urgent to find ways to stop coastal land loss. Five years ago, Congress recognized the need for action, and approved the Louisiana Coastal Area Program (LCA), which authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to plan and construct several large scale ecosystem restoration projects.
It’s one thing to come up with a plan (and a website); it’s another to come up with the money to fund the projects and make them happen. Since approving the program in 2007, Congress has yet to fund the construction of the projects. While time ticks on, the challenge only grows: land loss accelerates, projects get much more expensive and people are put at greater risk of being displaced. The longer the wait, the thornier (and more expensive) it gets to take effective action.
Last week, the White House made a bold move in insisting that the House Appropriations Committee send money toward the LCA, or it would veto the entire Energy and Water Appropriations Bill; as the Energy and Water Subcommittee relented on their threat to cut these funds, the result is a modest but significant beginning of new construction aimed at restoration.
In the past two budget cycles, President Obama has made requests for the Army Corps of Engineers to fund LCA restoration construction. Last year, the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee reduced the requested $16.2 to $1 million (the federal budget outlay was roughly $3.8 trillion). In the end, it was zeroed out altogether.
This year, the President requested $16.8 million; then watched as the House Energy and Water Subcommittee struck it out of their proposed bill. The funds fell victim to a misguided debate where subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) claimed, despite significant evidence to the contrary, that ecosystem restoration projects did not create jobs, like other navigation or flood protection projects constructed by the Army Corps.
This time around, however, the White House took the bold step of threatening a veto if the appropriations bill did not include some funding for the LCA. In a statement released two weeks ago, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) called on the House to restore funding for several priority Army Corps of Engineers projects. Shortly after, Reps. Steve Scalise, R-LA and Cedric Richmond, D-LA, proposed an amendment to restore $10 million for the program; the move was passed 216-177 on June 1.
While $10 million is a modest sum compared to the $50 billion in projected projects planned in the state of Louisiana to thwart land loss, Congressional support for breaking ground on new construction is critical. Once the construction starts, it will be easier to get funding in future cycles to complete these projects.
Ironically, these types of ecosystem restoration projects have benefits on many levels, including creating abundant jobs that pay well and can employ local residents. Patrick Barnes, President of BFA Environmental Consulting and founder of a job training nonprofit organization, cites the benefits to the local economy. “These projects will generate all types of jobs: from data collection to manual labor to engineering and more. A lot of it is physical labor and field inspection, and we can train for these types of skills.”
Investing in these projects would benefit the local and national economy; reduce risk (this is hurricane season after all); help the unemployed and underemployed; and protect and restore the environment and wildlife. (Beyond Recovery, a joint report from Oxfam and the Center for American Progress explores the benefits of restoration projects.)
As the White House puts it: “Investing in these areas is critical to the Nation’s economic growth, security, and global competitiveness. The Administration also strongly objects to the inclusion of ideological and political provisions that are beyond the scope of funding legislation.”
The White House deserves credit for being willing to stick its proverbial neck out for coastal Louisiana—not exactly within the President’s political base—and risk delaying a big bill like this in an election year, in order to protect vulnerable communities along the coast.
And yet again, Reps. Scalise and Richmond are showing Congress that big challenges (like losing landmass the size of Rhode Island) can be tackled with sensible bipartisan solutions to, quite literally, put money where our mouth has been—in this case since 2007.