La. lawsuits may portend shifting political tide

It’s very disturbing in a lot of ways.
By KEVIN McGILL, The Associated Press

When a south Louisiana flood control board filed a lawsuit last summer against nearly 100 oil and gas companies over the loss of coastal wetlands, it was treated as a political pariah for attacking an important Louisiana industry.
An association of its fellow levee districts voted to oppose the lawsuit. Gov. Bobby Jindal lambasted the action as a windfall for trial lawyers and announced he would seek to replace the board’s members as their terms expired.
Now, two coastal parishes heavily dependent on the industry have filed lawsuits of their own, raising the question of whether the political tide is turning.
“It’s very disturbing in a lot of ways,” Chris John, president of the Louisiana Midcontinent Oil and Gas Association said of the lawsuits filed by lawyers for Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes. “Because these are the very people that are making their living off of the oil and gas industry.”
Critics of the industry have a different view. John Barry, ousted from the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East by Jindal after the filing of its historic lawsuit, hopes the parishes’ lawsuits will lead to a settlement in which the companies will do more to mitigate damage done by decades of drilling and canal dredging.
“As the number of lawsuits mounts, oil companies will eventually recognize that it is in their interest to sit down and work out a solution, with or without the governor’s leadership,” Barry, a historian and author, said in a written statement.
Barry this past week announced formation of Restore Louisiana Now. The new nonprofit will raise funds to, among other things, drum up support for the lawsuits.
That support will include lobbying state lawmakers against any effort by Jindal or industry lobbyists to undermine the lawsuit with legislation in the 2014 session.
Foster Campbell, who spent years in the Legislature unsuccessfully pushing for a processing tax on oil piped into the state, said he hopes the lawsuits portend a change in attitude among lawmakers. “We’ve had too many politicians in the pockets of the oil companies,” Campbell, now a public service commissioner, said.
Louisiana has lost an estimated 1,500 square miles of coastal wetlands since 1930 and is losing an estimated 30 square miles annually. Fixes, including river diversion projects meant to replenish the wetlands with silt, are estimated to cost in the tens of billions.
There is little dispute that the oil and gas activity has contributed to the loss — with canals for navigation and pipelines and other industry-related activity allowing the salty Gulf to encroach and weaken wetlands.
But estimates vary on how much of the damage is attributable to such activity. Also blamed are federal levee and river control projects that keep the Mississippi River from changing course — and, as a consequence, keep it from replenishing the wetlands with silt.
Jindal’ top coastal official, Garret Graves of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, has repeatedly said the SLFPAE lawsuit jeopardizes cooperative endeavors involving the state and the industry. The flood board’s actions “fundamentally conflict with the CPRA’s efforts to protect our communities from flood, restore our coast and hold liable parties accountable,” he said in a statement last week when asked about the litigation.
The latest lawsuits were filed Nov. 14: 21 in Plaquemines Parish and seven in Jefferson Parish, with more than 80 defendant companies, some named in multiple suits. Both parishes were focal points of media attention in 2010 when Gulf waters carried thick oil ashore from the BP oil spill.

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