With a legal whimper, the most controversial and much-ballyhooed lawsuit against the oil and gas industry in Louisiana, a cause of much agitation over four years, has died at the door of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The high court upheld lower federal courts' decisions that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East did not have standing to bring claims against energy companies for damage to the state's coast.
As Louisiana courts are notoriously more plaintiff-friendly than most jurisdictions, the early decision to move the case to federal court was pivotal to this outcome.
Standing is crucial, for otherwise the courts would be flooded with frivolous lawsuits, as the industry claimed this one to be.
Who speaks for the state? The levee board, SLFPA-E, argued that the damages to the coast over decades cost it and thus the state money, but it was questionable from the beginning that a single board representing only part of the coast was the body with standing to sue. The governor at the time the litigation started, Bobby Jindal, was strongly against the lawsuit and ultimately replaced some of the board members who supported it.
We have not, however, reached the end of coastal litigation.
A handful of parishes have filed similar suits. Those cases, however, are mostly in state courts and use different legal justifications for their claims. They typically cite a provision in state law that requires companies to return land to its original condition when they are finished working with it. Suits have been filed in St. John the Baptist, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, Cameron and Vermilion parishes. None of them has gone to trial.
Crucially, they have the support of the new governor, John Bel Edwards, himself an attorney in private life. So oil and gas lobbyists' gleeful statements about the dismissal of "frivolous" lawsuits may be a bit premature.
Is there damage to the coast from oil and gas exploration and development? Yes, among other environmental factors. Were companies given permits and indeed encouraged to drill by the state government at the time, going back many years? They were, and if any entity deserves to be in the dock for failing to enforce coastal laws, it is the state of Louisiana.
We doubt that courts are the ideal place to address coastal protection and preservation. For one thing, as Jindal and others asserted, the original SLPFA-E case might well have been a bonanza for the litigating attorneys. As this point was publicized, the attorneys made explicit commitments to limit their fees.
Coastal erosion and restoration are enormously complex issues, involving not just actions of particular companies but climate change, soil subsidence, the reduction of sedimentation in the channelized Mississippi River. Courts are good venues for resolving relatively narrow problems. Larger challenges involving interlocking causes and decades of shifting public policies need legislative intervention.
But the failure of governors and lawmakers over lawmakers over several generations to address the coastal crisis is what sent plaintiffs to courts in the first place. As one high-profile lawsuit prompted by an environmental catastrophe fades into history, the need for Louisiana's elected leaders to act is more evident than ever.