Is Louisiana's New Coastal Protection Plan a Chance to Lead?

For many people, saving Louisiana's coast from the rising tides of the Gulf of Mexico would be a priority if only to save the wonderful City of New Orleans.

Of course, there are many reasons to save the coast. Increasing storm surges are expected to erode precious wetlands, ruin vital fisheries and oyster beds, inundate many communities, and damage valuable infrastructure.

With so much at stake, it is strange that Louisiana’s new 2017 Master Plan for Coastal Protection is silent on the success of energy efficiency programs already underway in New Orleans. Efficiency programs like those in New Orleans reduce power plant emissions and can help over the planning period to prevent the worst-case sea-level rise from coming to pass. The Plan should propose to expand ambitious efficiency programs statewide. 

Of course, there would be pessimists who argue that greater energy efficiency in Louisiana cannot materially change the worldwide problem of power-plant emissions and rising sea levels. But as one of the states most vulnerable to rising seas, Louisiana's actions matter not only for their contribution to the problem, but also because of leadership. Louisiana's Coastal Protection Plan should set out a vision for tackling the problem on all fronts. It should demonstrate at home the policies and actions other cities and states should follow. This helps bring about the collective action that can, in fact, lessen the threat of the worst-case sea-level rise scenario.

In a recent interview Louisiana’s Governor John Bel Edwards offered a practical reason for Louisiana to lead:

"Before we can ever have any hope of asking taxpayers around the country to come to Louisiana and help us restore our coast, we have to be able to show them that we did everything that we could, reasonably, that is within our power."

Louisiana's new Plan proposes to spend over $50 billion on engineering projects to fight the effects of sea level rise: shoring-up barrier islands, diverting sediment from rivers to restore marshes, and building new levees and flood control structures. The Plan prepares for three scenarios for sea level rise this century: low, seas rise about 1.5 feet by 2100, medium, seas rise about 2.7 feet, and high, seas rise about 4.8 feet—shown in the maps here. (See Plan Appendix C2-1, page 9). 

Instead of asking how to prevent the worst-case high-sea-level outcome, the Plan authors seem to say, “We’ll take what comes." Yet the Plan makes clear the high-sea-level scenario makes all of the challenges much greater and more expensive. Some scientists, such as those at NOAA, predict an even higher worst-case sea level rise (about 8 feet by 2100). Being passive does not make sense.

Now, if you read the Plan more carefully, you'll find reason for optimism hidden in Appendix C2. It states the key determinant of sea level rise is atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping carbon pollution. Voila!  In other words, reducing carbon pollution today will reduce the likelihood the worst-case, high sea-level rise scenario will occur in 2100 and beyond. See Plan Appendix C2-1, Table 4 and related text, at page 10.

If the Plan authors were to ask what Louisiana could do to reduce such carbon emissions, they would find an encouraging answer in New Orleans:

Credit: Energy Smart logo taken from Entergy New Orleans website
  • With the leadership of the New Orleans City Council, the local utility, Entergy New Orleans operates very successful energy efficiency programs (called Energy Smart) that help local homeowners, renters, and owners of office buildings to improve efficiency with projects like adding insulation, tuning-up air conditioners, and replacing old thermostats. This reduces the need to generate and distribute power that would be wasted.
  • Energy Smart is expanding in 2017 to reach even more homes, apartments, and office buildings, and is on track to reach annual energy savings of 2%, an ambitious target that puts New Orleans in the top tier of U.S. jurisdictions.  
  • Entergy New Orleans has proven to be a capable and cost-effective administrator of the efficiency program. A 2015 report verified that every dollar of program cost returns about $1.90 to their customers.
  • Mayor Mitch Landrieu has led the way. The city implemented a project to make its own buildings more efficient. Improving libraries, fire stations, police stations, city hall, and even street lights reduces the city’s expenses and helps the utility to operate more efficiently. New Orleans is now participating in the national City Energy Project (led by NRDC and IMT).

The experience in New Orleans proves energy efficiency works in Louisiana. The State's Coastal Protection Plan should outline a vision to adopt similarly ambitious efficiency initiatives statewide.

Louisiana is not unique in dealing with this mix of challenges. New York City, vulnerable to hurricanes and rising seas, created a plan that includes an express commitment to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050.

recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that many cities and states along the Gulf Coast and the entire Eastern Seaboard face substantial risks from rising seas—from Houston, Texas, to Miami, Florida, to Washington, DC, all the way to Portland, Maine—and identified reducing carbon emissions as an “essential step” for all.  

Of course it's also important that energy efficiency initiatives make sense for reasons beyond reducing power plant emissions related to sea level rise. Implementing energy efficiency programs would likely save money for the state. Why? Because weatherizing homes, installing high-efficiency air conditioners, and the like, is usually less expensive than the cost of generating and delivering more power that would go out of leaky windows. This has been confirmed over and over. A recent report from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab verifies low average cost of energy-efficiency programs of the sort that could be implemented in Louisiana.

With a Master Plan to protect its coast, Louisiana has the opportunity to lead by implementing the policies that can, over the plan period, reduce the likelihood the worst-case sea level rise scenario will come to pass. The Louisiana Coastal Protection Restoration Authority is accepting comments on the draft plan through March 26, 2017. You can learn more at their website.  

* For additional maps showing land loss in Louisiana, see this ProPublica story and this excellent Times Picayune story.