By Mark Moseley, The Lens opinion writer

A month ago I griped about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s preternatural luck. Louisiana’s “part time governor,” as I called him, had radically scaled down his dubious sand-berm idea without any negative political fallout. All summer Jindal had touted the berms as being key to winning the “war” against oil in the Gulf. Then he retreated, scaling down the plan, and neither the media nor the public turned on him.

Well, perhaps I griped to soon.

A surprising number of high-profile stories have appeared in recent weeks looking at the issue. On Oct. 6, The Times-Picayune ran a front-page story titled “Sandy oil barriers have work to do, state says. But plan to build all 101 miles of berms postponed.”

Construction of sand berms along 40 miles of Louisiana Gulf Coast barrier islands needs to continue because oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout continues to threaten interior wetlands… Louisiana officials told the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday.

However, the state also has put off plans to build the rest of the 101 miles of barriers for which it had been seeking a permanent permit from the corps.

Echoing Len Bahr at LA Coast Post blog, I’d been saying that Jindal’s abandonment of the original berm plan was a big story. So it was great to see the local paper follow up along those lines. However, I was caught off guard when the T-P claimed that 40 miles of berm were being constructed, rather than the 14 to 25 miles I estimated.

A few days after their news article, the T-P’s letters section reprinted the photo of heavy equipment being flooded on an eroded sand berm. The berm story was gathering momentum.

On Oct. 12 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Jindal administration was unhappy with its contractor.

State officials are criticizing contractor Shaw Group Inc. and its subcontractors for not moving fast enough on the 40-mile berm project. The about $360 million bill is being paid by BP PLC, the owner of the well that caused the Gulf oil spill.

Shaw and its contractors “haven’t delivered what they promised,” Garret Graves, chairman of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said in an interview.

Louisiana officials say the berms have blocked at least several hundred barrels of oil and that they still are needed to protect the coast from oil that many scientists say remains under the Gulf’s surface. If the project had moved along faster, it “could have put us in a different posture than we’re in today,” said Mr. Graves.

This was the first time I’d seen the Jindal administration complain about the pace of berm construction. And I was intrigued to see them release an estimate of “several hundred barrels of oil” being blocked by the berms. That’s such an embarrassingly small total, given the high price of the project. If you’re scoring at home (or even if you’re alone) that comes to roughly $1 million per barrel of oil blocked.

Then, last Thursday The New York Times got into the act:

Since early June, a series of low-lying islands stretching about 10 miles have been constructed several miles from the coastline by hundreds of workers with sand dredged from gulf waters.

Gov. Bobby Jindal made the sand berms a signature element of his response to the oil spill last spring, exhorting federal officials to approve the project, and BP to foot the bill. So far the oil company has disbursed $240 million of a promised $360 million to the state.

Yet many scientists say the remaining oil from the spill, the largest in United States history, is far too dispersed to be blocked or captured by large sand structures.

So far, the berms have captured only 1,000 barrels of oil, according to official estimates, compared with the nearly five million barrels believed to have spewed from the BP well over all. By contrast, more than 800,000 barrels of oil were captured by BP at the wellhead, and roughly 270,000 barrels of oil were burned off by Coast Guard vessels offshore. Skimming operations, meanwhile, recovered at least 34 million gallons of oil-water mixture.

While the numerical comparisons in that last paragraph add useful perspective, I’m very skeptical of the 1,000 barrel figure. I just don’t buy that the constructed berms have soaked up that much oil. But even if they have, it’s still not a “major” amount according to Jindal, who dismissed the 17,000 barrels of oil and condensate spilled into the Gulf after Hurricane Katrina. Here are even more gems from the NYT article, along with a few comments:

Yet even as some foes deride the project as “Jindal’s folly,” state officials champion the effort, arguing that they must do everything in their power to keep residual oil at bay.

Actually I haven’t heard “Jindal’s folly” yet, but I am starting to hear “bermdoggle,” which is pretty clever.

Some political analysts in Louisiana suggest that abandoning the berm project far short of completion could mar the public’s largely positive perception of Mr. Jindal’s handling of the spill, which raised his profile both locally and nationally.

Heaven forfend we mar the public’s perception of our wonderboy governor! By all means, let’s keep spending hundreds of millions on dubious berms that barely collect any oil.

I don’t see a downside to continuing to do this,” Mr. Graves said. “Maybe we’re being too protective of our coast. O.K., accuse me. I don’t have a problem with that.”

That’s pretty cute framing: If these environmentalists and scientists want to fault us for loving the coast too much, then we’ll just have to bear that burden. Hell, I wish this issue were about protecting the coast, because I’d be on Graves and Jindal’s side. They deserve credit for their commitment to coastal restoration. Unfortunately, though, these berms aren’t about protection. They’re mostly about the governor’s pride. Instead of throwing good money after bad like we’re doing now, we should channel the remaining millions into more effective coastal projects.

Some scientists and federal officials suggest that the remaining money allocated for the berms might be better spent on other coastal restoration projects, a move that BP says it would support. The money could be spent, they say, on barrier island restoration, for example, in which dredged sand is used to bolster existing islands, mimicking natural processes.

Let’s get started! Oh wait, we can’t divert the money because it might tarnish Jindal’s precious reputation.  Bummer.

The NYT article concludes:

As the project evolved, the state radically altered its original proposal, allowing for large gaps between the berm segments and easing concerns that the estuaries would be harmed. These alterations will also allow the project to come in close to its original $360 million budget, state officials say, but will mean that only 22 miles of berms will be built — not the 40 originally envisaged.

The numbers keep changing – downwards. In June the NYT reported Jindal’s original berm plan, which was “intentionally vague” at the outset, stretched 140 miles. The LA Times reported 128 miles. The state actually requested permits for over 100 miles of berms, and the Coast Guard approved 40 miles worth. Then, as the LSU Daily Reveille first reported, the state suddenly said it was going to “focus” on six berms totaling 14 miles, and wouldn’t seek permits beyond 40 miles. I stated that the project had been reduced to between “14 and 25 miles of protection,” and the T-P and WSJ confirmed the scope of the berm plans were now, at most, 40 miles of berm. Now the NYT says only 22 miles of berm will be built, which fits into my earlier estimate.

Interestingly, the berm story coincides with two other political stories about Jindal. The first involves his frequent out-of-state trips to stump for Republican candidates. The other involves Louisianans concerns about mid-year budget cuts to higher education and health care. In an inspired maneuver, LSU Student Government President J. Hudson creatively combined the two issues by sending a letter to Jindal telling him to focus on Louisiana’s budgetary problems… while Jindal was campaigning up in New Hampshire for other candidates. The gambit worked. A New Hampshire newspaper printed Hudson’s plea to Jindal to come back and focus on his home state. The story received considerable notice, and embarrassed the governor.

I think between Jindal’s absenteeism, his expensive bermdoggle, and ever-larger cuts to education and health care, we have the makings of a volatile political situation. If these elements were weaved into a political argument, I think someone could generate serious political traction.

Granted, Jindal has weathered some political firestorms. In 2008 he had to dodge actual recall campaigns because Louisianans were so angry about his (short-lived) refusal to veto the Legislature’s pay raise bill. Then in 2009 Jindal famously botched his Republican live rebuttal to President Obama on national TV. In his speech, he decried “wasteful spending,” and cited a $14 million program for volcano monitoring in Alaska to prove his point. (Whereas down in thrifty Louisiana, where we understand the value of a dollar, you can get almost a mile long temporary sand berm for $14 million!)

Nonetheless Jindal shouldn’t ignore the political volcano rumbling beneath him. The berm/budget comparisons are just too easy: 22 miles of berms cost $360 million; higher education has been cut by over $300 million since 2008, and will be cut by another $300 million next year. Yes, BP’s money underwrote the berms, but that’s no excuse to waste it.

I think little more needs to happen for these various issues to combine in the public mind, and achieve critical mass. And if Jindal keeps adding hubris to the mix, all bets are off:

We don’t need whining, we don’t need complaining. We need leaders to provide vision. We need leaders to provide specific plans on how we can do a better job delivering more services for our people right here in Louisiana,” said Jindal.

But one leader not coming up with a specific plan is Jindal himself, according to WWL political analyst Clancy Dubos.

He’s not coming up with any real solutions. He’s just telling colleges come up with another plan,” said DuBos.

So let’s review:

  • * after complaining all summer about how the feds impaired his berm idea, Jindal won’t listen to students complain about how budget cuts will impair their education.
  • * Jindal rails against the wasteful spending of other politicians, and then doubles down on a wasteful “bermdoggle” out of political pride.
  • * Instead of demanding the Shaw Group to “do more with less,” Jindal tells educators to do more with less.
  • * And instead of providing visionary leadership and specific budget plans, Jindal flies in from New Hampshire to tell Louisiana’s whiners  that they must… wait for it… find visionary leaders with specific budget plans.

Governing magazine has a cover story titled “Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s Evolving Leadership.” (Apparently, for Jindal, evolution is a component of leadership more than a component of science.) The piece describes Jindal’s style as “hands-on in responding to disaster, hands-off in making policy.”

“I thought when we elected him that we were getting a policy wonk,” says [ULL Political Science Professor Pearson] Cross. “Completely not.” Instead, Cross says, Jindal has focused on articulating broad conservative principles. “No one ever sees him as failing,” he adds, “because he’s committed to principles,” not specific programs.

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s fiscal future looks grim. “We are probably looking at a $2 billion revenue shortfall next year,” says Edward Ashworth, director of the Louisiana Budget Project. “We’ve used the rainy-day fund; that’s gone. We’ve tapped into all these other dedicated funds. We are down to the lick log. What do you do now?

Precisely. Jindal’s principled, “hands off” approach won’t work next year. As higher education gets chopped and expensive berms wash away, voters won’t tolerate Jindal promoting his new book about the conservative “principles” that will “rescue” the rest of the nation.

In short, I believe Jindal’s short-term political future is considerably more problematic than the conventional wisdom thinks. He’s in a sticky situation; far stickier than his sand berms will ever get.

While the resurgent berm issue might not be the spark that sets off the firestorm, it certainly adds kindling to the pile. One day soon this pile will combust. There is no way that Jindal can maintain his careerist absenteeism and his budgetary Pontius Pilate-ism next year – an election year. It just won’t wash. He’ll have to dirty his hands and own the spending cuts. He’ll have to lick the log.

I doubt these political dynamics have gone unnoticed by a pro such as political analyst James Carville. He understands timing, and sees political opportunities before they become conventional wisdom. While I’m sure his recent effort in defense of LSU is sincere, I’m also not ignoring the fact that it lays useful political groundwork. Since Carville has experience advising successful campaigns that seem to come out of nowhere and removing (once highly popular) governors and presidents, I’m wondering if he has ideas for next year. Perhaps he’s reconsidered his long-held resistance to being a candidate.

It’s not a pipe dream, if he believes Jindal’s high approval numbers are hollower than people think. Two and a half years ago, I scoffed at the idea that “bad boy” Sen. David Vitter might one day have the last laugh over wunderkind Jindal. Today, that thought strikes me as being more prescient than ludicrous.

Final note: A previous post criticized Jindal’s hasty “freshwater flow” decision, which resulted in killing oyster beds. This letter from two members of Louisiana Wildlife Federation Baton Rouges points out the positive effects of the freshwater release, which nourished coastal ecosystems.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...