This has become laughable. The very existence of coastal Louisiana is at stake, Governor John Bel Edwards wants the oil and gas industry to restore the part of the coast it destroyed, and the industry responds by attacking the attorneys he wants to hire.
Of course that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The industry has no actual defense, so it needs to distract. Let’s look at the issue point by point, starting with causes of the problem.The industry’s minions blame levees for land-loss, and levees do cause damage. But industry has, too — and in some areas of the state industry is the biggest cause. Don't take my word for it.
Ask oil industry scientists. In 1972 a study by pipeline companies concluded that every mile of pipeline causes the loss of 54 acres of land, and industry has dredged thousands and thousands of miles of pipelines and canals. In 1989, a study by the Louisiana Mid-continent Oil and Gas Association, the trade association for major oil companies, examined the area of the state with the worst land-loss and concluded that "the overwhelming cause" of that land loss was industry operations. In 2001 the U.S. Geological Survey oversaw a study including industry scientists which concluded 36 percent of land loss was caused by industry. And many scientists believe industry caused a much higher percentage of the land loss.
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What about the levees? Cong. Garret Graves urged the governor to sue the Army Corps of Engineers for building them, making it sound as if the Corps invaded Louisiana, held citizens at gunpoint, and forced the state to accept levees. In fact, Louisianans had been building levees for 200 years before the Corps—after Louisiana begged Congress for its help — finally took over, but in return Congress gave the Corps immunity for any damage caused by flood protection levees. Without levees, much of the state, including Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and all the industry between them, would be uninhabitable. So, society as a whole decided to build levees, and taxpayers paid for them. The damage caused by levees was an unintended consequence.
By contrast, the oil industry engaged in a private enterprise for profit. In return, it accepted certain responsibilities. Now it wants to evade those responsibilities. Its defenders make much of the fact that companies received permits to drill. These defenders should read the permits. Since environmental damage was not an unintended consequence—rather, it was the inevitable by-product of drilling-related activities-- permits explicitly state that they do not relieve the company of liability. (Nor should they. If you get a permit to dig a trench on your property, and that trench causes your neighbor's house to collapse, your permit does not release you from liability for destroying your neighbor's house.) That's also why, since the 1920s, the state has written laws and regulations, in increasingly explicit language, to minimize or mitigate any damage; since 1980 the industry has been required to “restore to the pre-existing condition” areas it damages.
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Industry’s next argument is that the damage is the state’s fault for not enforcing permits. That’s like a burglar blaming the cop for his crime because the cop was asleep — and in this case it’s no accident the cop was asleep. The oil and gas industry applied all its political muscle to make sure the state did not enforce permits and the law. But just because a company ignored the law in the past does not give it the right to ignore the law in the future.
Given all that, is it surprising the industry and its minions want to talk about anything but industry’s responsibilities and obligations? It’s the Corps, it’s the attorneys, it’s the permits.
What else can they come up with? Oh, yeah, we should all cooperate to solve the problem, not blame anyone. That’s code for: taxpayers-- i.e., everyone but the industry — should pay for it. In fact, taxpayers should pay for part of it; dams more than 1,500 miles upriver, which retain over one hundred million tons of sediment annually, do justify asking taxpayers nationally to pay their share. So should all parties who caused damage, including oil, gas, and pipeline companies. If Louisiana does not even attempt to hold responsible an industry whose own scientists blame it for causing enormous damage, how can we expect taxpayers from Oregon to Rhode Island to pay?
If coastal Louisiana is to have any chance of surviving, the governor’s initiative has to succeed. We are running out of time.
John M. Barry, the author of Rising Tide, was chief architect of the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East against 97 oil, gas, and pipeline companies over their role in coastal land-loss.
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