Louisiana wetlands could ease — or worsen — climate change. Curbing erosion could make the difference. – Houma Courier
A new report adds to growing research showing Louisiana’s coastal wetlands could play a key role in stemming the rising tides, damaging weather and other threats posed by climate change.
But the report, a paper published last week by scientists at Louisiana’s Water Institute of the Gulf, is not all good news.
Without restoration efforts, the state’s coastal marshes could lose half their ability to store carbon in the soil over a period of 50 years, according to the paper, published in the science journal Biogeosciences.
“This reduction in capacity could significantly alter the global carbon budget given that Louisiana’s marsh soils account for between 5 to 21 percent of the global soil carbon storage in tidally influenced wetlands,” Melissa Baustian, lead author and coastal ecologist at the Baton Rouge research center, said in a news release.
Scientists have long noted that rebuilding Louisiana’s eroding and sinking coastal marshes will help buffer inland communities like Houma and Thibodaux from Gulf of Mexico storms and tidal flooding.
But the wetlands’ natural ability to absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide, helping to control climate change, is a lesser-known benefit.
Louisiana wetlands could reap as much as $1.6 billion over the next 50 years for its coastal restoration work through so-called carbon credits, according to a 2015 study by Entergy, Tierra Resources and The Climate Trust.
Such credits allow companies to pay for projects that reduce carbon dioxide to offset the release of those gasses at factories, oil production facilities and other industrial sites that burn fossil fuels.
“The results of this assessment demonstrate that carbon finance has substantial potential to generate important revenue to support wetland restoration that will likely lead to new public-private paradigms that leverage carbon finance with government restoration dollars,” the Entergy study says. “This study points to Louisiana as an innovator of creative financing strategies for wetland restoration and as creating new investment opportunities that will yield significant economic and environmental benefits.”
But the new Water Institute report cites a downside. As Louisiana’s wetlands erode, they release the carbon dioxide they have sequestered, or locked in, worsening global warming.
“Protection and restoration of these marshes is vital to help protect the pool of buried carbon in the soils and to prevent release of carbon to the atmosphere,” Baustian said.
In February, the state contracted with the Water Institute to study just how much carbon Louisiana’s wetlands have stored and estimate their future potential for adding more. It’s part of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ goal of making Louisiana a net-zero producer of greenhouse gasses by 2050.
Meanwhile, the oil industry’s largest lobbying group has endorsed a federal price on carbon dioxide emissions and other steps that could lead to a coherent system of capturing, transporting and storing the greenhouse gas. The American Petroleum Institute also called for the federal government to set a price on carbon releases, something the group has opposed in the past.
The announcement late last month came as the Biden administration continues a review of policies governing oil and gas production on federal lands and waters, including the Gulf.
“Confronting the challenge of climate change and building a lower-carbon future will require a combination of government policies, industry initiatives and continuous innovation,” Mike Sommers, the group’s president and CEO, said in a prepared statement.
As it stands, companies interested in purchasing carbon credits do so through a patchwork of marketplaces governed by various state and even community regulations. As a result, the price and availability of carbon credits can vary widely.
In Washington, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., is among a bipartisan group of four senators who have introduced a measure aimed at creating a more coherent carbon capture system.
Their bill, the Storing CO2 And Lowering Emissions Act, or SCALE, is the first comprehensive carbon dioxide infrastructure package introduced in Congress.
The bill would provide tax incentives and regulations for building a system that would transport CO2 captured from industrial sites to either be used in manufacturing or sequestered safely underground.
Cassidy said Louisiana already has two critical pieces to become a significant national hub for carbon capture and storage:
► A sizable industrial base, including the oil and petrochemical industries, that would benefit economically from options to help manage its carbon emissions,.
► Large-scale geologic storage opportunities with immense potential for total storage, namely the state’s coastal wetlands.
“If the world wants less carbon in the atmosphere while preserving jobs, the answer is sequestering carbon,” Cassidy said. “There is no better place in the world than Louisiana to sequester carbon. This bill supports that vision of lower carbon and creates jobs in Louisiana.”