U.S. oil-drilling revenue falls short of forecasts, leaving a gap in funds for hurricane-protection projects
By NICHOLA GROOM
Saturday, March 16, 2019 Print Edition, Page B20
In 2006, a year after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the U.S. government struck a deal to give states in the region a growing share of offshore drilling revenue to finance projects protecting them from future monster storms.
But revenue have fallen short of forecasts by half, leaving Louisiana with a gap in financing for a US$50-billion plan for projects to raise levees, build flood gates, widen evacuation routes and protect its eroding coastline.
The shortfall, which federal officials blame on low oil prices, has forced the state to put off critical projects as Louisiana's congressional delegation pushes for another increase in its share of federal oil revenue.
The predicament shows how states hosting offshore drilling can get burned by the industry's boom-and-bust cycles, providing a cautionary tale for other states as the Trump administration proposes to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
Louisiana's underfinanced coastal projects also highlight the hefty cost of adapting to rising sea levels in a changing climate - a problem scientists blame on consumption of fossil fuels. Several coastal states including Florida, Massachusetts, California and Washington have urged the administration to leave them out of its drilling plans, arguing the environmental costs outweigh the promised jobs and income.
The stakes are particularly high for Louisiana, which has lost about 5,180-square-kilometres of land over the last century because of Mississippi River levees that block silt from reaching its swamps, the oil industry's carving of canals through the marshes and sea level rise from climate change.
But other states and countries should take notice of Louisiana's ordeal, said U.S. Representative Garret Graves, a Republican who managed the state's coastal restoration efforts before joining Congress in 2014.
"What in Louisiana is a [US]$50 or [US]$70-billion problem, you are talking hundreds of billions and trillions of dollars around the United States and around the world," he said.
Former president George W.
Bush signed the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) into law in December, 2006, providing storm-battered Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama a 37.5 per cent share of federal oiland-gas royalties from offshore drilling.
Previously, Gulf Coast states got 27 per cent of revenue from federal leases within five kilometres of their seaward boundaries.
The changes followed national outrage over the administration's botched emergency response to catastrophic flooding from the systematic failure of the federally constructed levee system in New Orleans.
Six months earlier, the chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admitted the agency had "missed something" in engineering the system, which collapsed at water levels lower than they were designed to withstand.
For the first 10 years, the changes applied to only a fraction of offshore leases. But after that, in larger payouts starting last year, it applied to all offshore leases off the coasts of these states.
In 2013, the Department of the Interior told Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas that, under the second phase, they would have at least US$375-million to split between them annually through 2055.
But when the states' first payment came in late last year, the payout totalled US$188-million.
"That has a huge impact on our planning efforts," said Chip Kline, chair of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which oversees its 50year, US$50-billion coastal restoration plan.
Another GOMESA recipient, Alabama, has also felt the pinch.
Its Republican governor, Kay Ivey, wrote a letter to then-Interior secretary Ryan Zinke in March, 2018, urging him to support states seeking more offshore revenue.
"Expanded and enhanced revenue sharing will allow states to more properly address the coastal impacts of offshore production," she wrote.
An official for the Texas General Land Office said the lower payouts had not impacted its programs because it had budgeted conservatively. Officials in Mississippi did not respond to requests for comment.
Department of the Interior officials said the shortfall was due to a sharp drop in oil prices since 2013. It would not provide the underlying oil price or production estimates it used in its 2013 projections, saying they were supplied by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and were confidential.
OMB did not respond to Reuters' request for the data.
In an e-mailed statement, the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the bureau no longer provides long-term projections for state revenue from the program.
The shortfall had an outsized impact on Louisiana, which receives almost half the GOMESA program's revenue because of its geographic proximity to the largest number of offshore wells.
It received US$82-million in its first phase-two payout, compared to the US$177-million it had been counting on.
Among the shortfall's biggest impacts, Mr. Kline said, would be a delay in completing the state's massive "Morganza to the Gulf" hurricane-protection project, a system of levees and floodgates to protect 150,000 coastal residents of Terrebonne Parish, La.
and Lafourche Parish, La. from a supposed 100-year storm, defined as having a 1-per-cent chance of hitting in any given year.
Lafourche Parish is a major seafood and oil-industry hub that includes Port Fourchon, La., the land base for offshore oil and gas services companies. Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes could each lose about 40 per cent of their land area in the next 50 years in the absence of effective coastal-protection measures, according to state research.
The Morganza project has been in the works for more than a decade and is expected to cost about US$2-billion. Local communities have already agreed to tax increases twice to help fund the unfinished project.
"We've been piecemealing this," said Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District.
The funding gap also forced state officials to cancel a plan to funnel 10 per cent of offshore oil revenue to help finance road improvements along hurricane evacuation routes.
St. Bernard Parish, La., which was devastated by flooding after Hurricane Katrina, has its own US$1-billion coastal plan, with US$600-million in projects ready to move forward.
It received US$781,000 from the 2018 payments, according to John Lane, coastal manager for the parish.
"There just isn't enough money coming in," Mr. Lane said.
While Louisiana officials piece together funding for their projects from other sources, its legislators in Congress are fighting for changes to GOMESA, including increasing the percentage diverted to states from 37.5 per cent to 50 per cent.
One such bill, sponsored by Mr.Graves, passed a vote in the House Committee on Natural Resources late last year, before the new Congress was seated.
But the idea faces resistance from those who believe the revenue should be used on national instead of state priorities. Both U.S. President Donald Trump and former president Barack Obama's administrations had proposed budgets eliminating or reducing GOMESA payments to finance federal programs instead, before being pushed back by Congress.
After hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the U.S. government promised a share of revenue from offshore oil drilling to fund hurricane-protection measures in the region. Among other things, the funds were meant to raise levee walls like this one in Louisiana.
GERALD HERBERT/ASSOCIATED PRESS