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Sarah Mack pilots her 24-foot boat to the edge of a grassy salt marsh in southern Louisiana to bring a slow-moving, $90 billion crisis to life.
Tierra Resources, a wetland restoration company, planted plastic poles at the edge of the marsh more than a year ago. Today, those poles stand alone in the water — at least 6 feet from the shore.
"And this is a more protected site," says Mack, who started Tierra Resources after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. "This is not bad erosion."
The vanishing land belongs to ConocoPhillips, which owns more than 640,000 acres in southern Louisiana. The oil company is Tierra Resources' main investor in a project to seed tens of thousands of acres of fragile marshland with an unassuming tropical plant called the black mangrove.
"Because the climate is warming and we're not getting hard freezes, these tropical plants are moving into the southern reaches of Louisiana," Mack says.
Mack believes the mangrove's dense root system will help hold the land together, and put the brakes on coastal erosion. It's one of many ideas that scientists and water managers are exploring in the Mississippi River Delta, which is losing a football field of land to erosion every hour.
The state legislature approved a $50 billion, 50-year coastal restoration plan last week that is partially funded by settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill.
But that money will not be enough, and President Trump has proposed slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act.
Louisiana state officials were banking on the money to fund coastal restoration projects. And with a fortune in pipelines and oil wells — along with customers — in the path of a future hurricane, private industry is looking for solutions of its own.
Dropping Seeds From The Sky
Port Fourchon, Louisiana's southernmost port, services 90 percent of the Gulf's offshore oil industry. Huge ships are docked across the channel from one of Mack's fledgling mangrove sites.
Port officials predict that if a hurricane were to close the port for three weeks, the region would lose more than $11 billion.
To help mitigate that kind of disaster, Mack has tested different ways to seed the salt marsh with mangroves. Her crew has plied the shallow waters to collect thousands of propagules — or seeds — from the mangrove plant. They then load those seeds into the hopper of a crop-duster airplane so they can be dropped deep into the grassy marshland.
"In general along the Louisiana coast, you see mangroves along the bayou edges," says Louisiana State University professor Robert Lane, also a consultant for Tierra Resources.
That's because the propagules floating on the water get stranded along the edges of the marsh "and can't get further into the interior," Lane says. "It's the interior marsh we are trying to establish these mangroves in."
The project is still in the scale-up phase. Mack eventually wants to seed up to 30,000 acres of salt marsh. She also has her eye on using the restored land to sell carbon credits to companies that want to offset their emissions.
"Nothing is quite enough," says Mack, referring to her acreage goal. "But when our trade-off is open water, every bit helps."
The Role Of Industry
Oil companies themselves have caused a great deal of erosion along Louisiana's coast. For decades, they've dug a system of canals through the delicate marsh to access their wells. Some parishes have sued, demanding oil companies pay more for restoration.
But the land loss — roughly equivalent to the size of Delaware since the 1930s — can also be attributed to generations of flood protection along the Mississippi River. Levees and dams have prevented sediments from naturally building up the land.
The state acknowledges in its restoration plan that climate change and sea level rise compound the problem. And some corporations have, too.
"We recognize that sea level rise and coastal erosion are risks to our assets and the customers we serve," says Rick Johnson, director of environmental strategy and policy for Entergy, an electric utility that serves several southern states.
Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina plowed through the area and destroyed one of its power plants, Entergy New Orleans was forced into bankruptcy.
"People moved away, couldn’t accept power," Johnson says. "The meters weren’t turning."
The company estimates that by 2030, environmental risks will cause $350 billion in damage along the Gulf Coast.
So Entergy is trying to prepare for a future disaster. It's invested more than $600,000 in Mack's restoration efforts in recent years.
Back on the bayou, near Port Fourchon, Mack says it's an all-hands-on-deck kind of problem.
"The government is so slow, and this is a dire emergency."
This segment aired on June 7, 2017.