Monday, May 24, 2010

Babbitt on Sea-Level Rise and Protecting Coastal Lands

Former Arizona Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave the keynote talk this morning at the Lincoln Institute Conference on the Environment, Climate Change, and Land Use.

His talk began with the expectation of a 3-foot sea-level rise during the present century, and its anticipated effects in US states as diverse as California and Louisiana. In California, the chief effect would not be on the coastline itself, which is rising because of tectonic activity, but inland on the Bay Delta, where it could disrupt not only local agricultural activities but the water pumps that supply most of Southern California's vast and ever-growing water needs.

Sec. Babbitt focused most of his discussion on the Louisiana coast, which he believes will actually drive national policy going forward. The Louisiana delta will subside by about 2 feet this century, while sea level rises. He believes that urban areas like New Orleans will be saved; they will essentially become islands like Venice. But somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 square miles of Louisiana delta will be submerged; and it is this coming change that will likely drive policy.

So far, Congress is ignoring projected sea level rise and its likely effects on coastal marshlands. The US Army Corps of Engineers has a simplistic solution of building more levees in a piecemeal fashion. What's really needed is something like the "Great Wall of Louisiana," extending from the Texas border to the Mississippi border. But even that would come at a very high ecological cost to Louisiana's coastal fisheries. Sea walls are really not the answer, as the Dutch have recently started to realize; they're starting to take down some of their sea walls.

Underlying current policy debates, according to Sec. Babbitt, is a "lack of candor" about what's really necessary to deal with sea-level rise and its effects on US coastal lands. We need a "managed retreat" from the coast, which requires careful and far-sighted land management planning at the national level, but coordinated with the states, including a financing plan. Babbitt's analogy for this is the national interstate highway system, which was a national plan, coordinated with the states, and financed by earmarked gas taxes.

If we are serious about dealing with the looming problem, Sec. Babbitt says four steps are necessary: (1) legislation that sets standards for a coordinated, national effort, including the creation of something like a "coastal restoration agency;" (2) the management effort must be driven by careful benefit-cost analyses; (3) associated state projects should only be funded if they are based on existing state comprehensive plans for coastal restoration; and (4) financing should come from the beneficiaries of coastal restoration projects, including perhaps the creation of special taxing districts.

It was a very interesting and substantive talk. I have serious doubts as to whether Sec. Babbitt's proposals are politically feasible at present. But then, so does he.

On a side note, Sec. Babbitt suggested that BP should not only pay damages for the oil it has spilled, but should also pay royalties to the US government for it. I think this is correct as a matter of legal interpretation of the mineral leasing laws, which do not exempt spilled oil from the royalty requirement.

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