Louisiana pushes offshore boundary

07 07, 2012 by Houma Courier

Louisiana officials are enforcing a law passed by the Legislature last year to expand the state’s three-mile offshore fishing and energy-exploration threshold in the Gulf to 10.4 miles.

Lawmakers argue it is unfair that Texas and Florida are both afforded extended boundaries, while here it is limited to three miles.

Mississippi and Alabama share the same restrictions as Louisiana.

But there remains an important catch: the state Legislature does not have the authority to extend its own offshore boundary.

Congress, in 1953, set the three-mile standard, and it will be up to the federal government to decide whether to reverse the decision.

As pitched to legislators by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, the state law’s intent is to set Louisiana up for a legal battle, possibly leading to the U.S. Supreme Court or maybe even Congress taking action.

Based on estimates from the state Natural Resources Department, Louisiana’s windfall could be anywhere between $342 million and $480 million a year, due largely to increased oil-and-gas revenue from production in the Gulf of Mexico.

“What we’re seeing now will likely incite some kind of legal challenge,” Claitor said. “Sometimes, it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

The Wildlife and Fisheries Commission was the first state agency to take action on Claitor’s law when it voted unanimously last month to extend state waters to 10.4 miles.

It ruled the new territory should be “enforced by state law regarding the protection and restoration of coastal lands, waters and natural resources and regulation of activities affecting them.”

Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham said the decision “supports what the governor, Legislature and people of Louisiana want to see from our department.”

Like others, he has also framed it as a states’ rights issue.

“The bountiful resources that are native to Louisiana’s waters should be managed beyond the three-mile boundary currently recognized by the federal regulatory body, and this is a bold first step by Louisiana in claiming what is rightful ours,” Barham said.

Wildlife and Fisheries officials, however, are encouraging fishermen to “use caution and their own personal judgment when fishing beyond the three-mile boundary” because the federal government will continue to enforce those areas as its own.

“Until the time when the U.S. Congress confirms Louisiana’s action ... the battle will continue over Louisiana’s state water boundary,” the department said in a news release.

The Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources also passed a resolution last week opposing Louisiana’s plan.

According to The Associated Press, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Director Bill Walker said he doubts Louisiana will be successful.

“I don’t think there’s a chance of Congress approving it,” Walker said. “Only Congress can provide federal waters to a state or the courts.”

Commercial fishermen and charter boat captains in Mississippi are likewise complaining that Louisiana’s decision may cut them off from the federal waters they once fished.

If Louisiana is successful, Mississippi anglers would have to follow Bayou State regulations and requirements to fish what has always been federal waters.

Claitor said Mississippi lawmakers might find it beneficial to approve the same threshold in the Gulf of Mexico. He said he has reached out to officials there and in Alabama.

“I think we would do a lot better if we could get more of the Gulf Coast to make the same claim,” Claitor said.

Claitor said it’s possible that individual parishes could get in on the action by pressing a challenge on the issue of whether oil companies owe them taxes on assets that were previously untouchable.

But he added the only endgame that matters will be whether the Supreme Court or Congress decides to act on Louisiana’s intent.