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Hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in fight over offshore oil riches

Budget plan threatens to gut Louisiana's coastal restoration effort

A pair of marsh buggies work in the West Bay Diversion south of Venice, La in this March 28, 2013 file photo A pair of marsh buggies work in the West Bay Diversion south of Venice, La in this March 28, 2013 file photo
NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

Hundreds of millions of dollars for Louisiana coastal restoration could be at risk under President Obama's proposed spending plan.

The budget, unveiled this week, would scrap plans for Gulf Coast states from Florida to Texas to share $500 million in offshore oil royalties annually. The total includes an estimated $170 million for Louisiana, according to Jerome Zeringue, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

"To remove that, it's egregious and it's an insult to the state and our ability to address this issue," Zeringue said.

Under the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, or GOMESA, the Gulf Coast would reap a significantly larger share of royalties oil and gas companies pay the federal government beginning in 2017.

That pot of money represents the largest continuing source of revenue for Louisiana's Coastal Master Plan and up to one-half of  the total funding in some years, according to Zeringue. Louisiana voters passed a constitutional amendment mandating the money be spent on hurricane protection and coastal restoration projects.

"Now, the president wishes to take away that funding," said U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana). "It's a war on the people who flooded in Rita and Katrina."

Cassidy, who called the proposal "unconscionable," vows along with other members of the state's delegation to fight the proposal. Critics of GOMESA argue offshore oil reserves are national resources that should be shared nationally.

The Obama proposal would sprinkle the money among conservation programs around the country. While environmental groups generally side the president, the National Wildlife Federation split with Obama on the Louisiana funding.

"It's a hit we can't afford to take," said David Muth, Louisiana State Director of the NWF Louisiana Coastal Campaign.

Muth praised other parts of the Obama budget, including climate change initiatives and funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund aimed at safeguarding natural areas and providing recreation opportunities. However, Muth said the GOMESA money "has already been dedicated by the voters of Louisiana to funding the Master Plan and it's critical that we get that done."

Conventional wisdom holds the budget is dead on arrival in Congress. However, the suggestion may signal the half-billion-dollar pot is a tempting target in budget-conscious Washington.

"What's even more insulting is the fact that it's even proposed," Zeringue said.

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