Though President Obama’s highly anticipated oil-gusher speech was widely panned, he made an important commitment to restoring Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. If kept, this expensive, long-term promise – made before a national prime-time audience – might be the most significant commitment a president ever made to the Pelican state. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Obama’s Oval Office address.
Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region. The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that’s already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats. And the region still hasn’t recovered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That’s why we must make a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment.
I make that commitment tonight. Earlier, I asked Ray Mabus, the Secretary of the Navy, who is also a former governor of Mississippi and a son of the Gulf Coast, to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible. The plan will be designed by states, local communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents.
Now, precisely what does Obama expect Mabus to accomplish? It’s unclear. He asked him to develop a coordinated plan, but the Obama administration already was in the process of developing a coordinated, long-term vision for the coast with its Road Map for Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration. The idea, I hope, is for Mabus to accelerate the existing effort.
We can’t afford the time it would take him to start over.
We don’t have years to wait for a redundant study that will yield another “decision matrix” to assess the goals we must agree upon before the scientists can do their research to compile the data that will support the coastal proposals that will require authorized funding before shovels can finally hit the mud. We know wetlands restoration is a complex issue that will take decades to achieve. But we already have an important framework in place, and many scientific studies are nearing completion.
There are other reasons for concern. Environmentalists fret that even if Mabus has the right mindset, he won’t be able to devote his full-time attention to the enormous task of coastal restoration. His time is finite: won’t he privilege naval issues over wetlands issues? Perhaps Mabus will need to unleash the no-holds-barred creativity he has displayed in the past to simultaneously handle his present responsibilities.
Taking the larger view, I think Louisianans are fortunate to have a president – who many regard as anti-Louisiana due to the drilling moratorium – who is willing to take on the massively expensive issue of coastal restoration during an oil gusher disaster, two wars, a Great Recession, and a soaring deficit. This was an optional move for Obama. It would’ve been much easier to simply kick the coastal can down the road, like his predecessors have done. Instead, he made a potentially historic commitment to restore Louisiana’s Coast.
True, it’s only a verbal commitment. Obama must act in concert with his rhetoric, and Mabus must treat coastal restoration as a crucially important mission. Otherwise, this will simply be a re-enactment of the cruel post-flood dance by President George W. Bush and “recovery czar” Donald Powell – who spent years avoiding any commitment to Category 5 flood protection for New Orleans.
Obama’s Road Map lists scientific studies scheduled for completion in the next 18 months that will help determine restoration goals. Obama and Mabus will not be able to run the clock out with studies as the Bush administration did regarding Category 5 flood protection after Katrina and the Federal Flood. They either can cop out by starting over, keep their promise, or break it.
Obama will have no way to positively spin things if he fails to make substantive moves toward coastal restoration during his first term.
Some of my blogging colleagues are understandably skeptical about Obama’s commitment to the coast. For example, Tim writes a post at his “Nameless” blog titled “Prove Me Wrong.” He admits that he is cynical about presidential rhetoric after Bush’s broken promises. Tim challenges Obama to surprise him:
President Obama, prove me wrong. Show us that your words are not simply more campaign rhetoric. Make me take my words back and write a blog about how you turned out to be a man of your word. Because I’ll do it– I’ll gladly eat crow online for all the world to see.
The next move is yours, Mr. President.
In light of recent history, cynicism in South Louisiana is justified. It’s certainly the safe play for our fragile psyches. If we sit back and expect nothing, there’s no chance of high hopes getting dashed.
But, is this really the best time to adopt such a darkened, unhelpful posture? The national attention from the oil gusher allowed Obama an opportunity to fast-track coastal restoration before it becomes cost prohibitive – and he seems to be taking it! In short, the Obama administration – with its Road Map, its Oval Office promises, and its appointment of Mabus – offers Louisiana perhaps its last, best chance to begin the process of coastal restoration. So is now the moment to sit back with a cranky “prove me wrong, I’ll believe it when I see it” posture?
I think not. Given the dire long-term circumstances, the risk of being fooled (again) pales in comparison to the benefits of assisting the effort to save the coast. Sure, it requires a leap. There are no guarantees, and recent history offers us no reason for euphoric cheerleading or giddy chicken-counting. Certainly nothing beyond vigilant optimism is advisable. Much can go wrong. But, how many alternatives do we have at this point? If we all become merely passive cynics and are proven “right”– guess what, South Louisiana is still doomed! How comforting will that be? Healthy skepticism is fine, but we cautiously can assume the president is sincere while pressuring him to keep his promise to save the coast that nourishes our culture and way of life. This isn’t a ridiculous, far-flung pipe dream. Things seem to be coming together more than they ever have before. The president is verbally committed, a preliminary plan is in place, and Mabus is tasked with getting it done quickly. Will we assist this initial effort with sharp eyes, ready hands and a hopeful heart, or will we sit back and leave the onus on everyone else?
Our coastal situation is desperate, and this looks like our best chance to do something. And truly, how satisfying will it be to whip out the “I told you so” card in a few decades, when we’re dining on foreign shrimp at an Applebee’s in Baton Rouge?