A New Orleans area flood protection authority punted its civic obligation Thursday, deciding — with more of a shrug than a game plan — to soldier on with its lawsuit against scores of oil and gas companies for damaging Louisiana’s coastline. The panel didn’t even bother to vote after its attorney threatened to send over a legal bill for “a couple million dollars” if the board pulled the plug.
It didn’t have to come to this, but today’s board members are hamstrung by poor decisions made by their predecessors under the leadership of Tim Doody and John Barry.
Two years ago, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East plotted in secret to ambush the energy companies with a suit claiming the damage to the coastline from oil and gas exploration left the New Orleans area more vulnerable to flooding. Part of the secret plan included an agreement with a group of attorneys that guaranteed the lawyers as much as 32.5 percent of the proceeds and required the board to pay their hourly rates if future members gave up on the lawsuit.
Louisiana might have benefitted from a robust, public debate about the role of energy firms in degrading the coast. That damage is real, and there’s no question that industry played a big role in a profound ecological catastrophe.
But the board’s secretly planned lawsuit landed with a giant thud. Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators moved to crimp the board’s authority and even the parallel flood control authority for the west bank of the Mississippi took a pass on the litigation. Opponents of the suit portrayed the board as a captive of greedy trial lawyers, and since the authority chose to do its business in secret, lawsuit supporters are having a hard time disputing that narrative.
Now, the suit has been dismissed by U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown, a victory for the Jindal administration and its claim that the board did not have the authority to file it in the first place. The lawyers for the flood authority want to take the case to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, but lawsuit foes say it’s hard to imagine that the Republican-dominated appeals court will look at the case more favorably than Brown, a Democrat, who rejected it completely.
Jindal has been replacing the pro-lawsuit board members one at a time as their terms expire. So Thursday’s meeting featured an honest, open debate between factions favoring and opposing the suit.
When opponents asked whether they could simply walk away from the case, attorney Gladstone Jones said that would constitute firing the firms, triggering the requirement that the board pay for their time and expenses. Jones said the lawyers will decide whether and when to give up on the appeals process.
Commissioner Jeff Angers, a lawsuit opponent, chimed in with the most relevant question: “Are we the client or are you?”