That the oil and gas industry has near-total sway over the Louisiana Legislature is hardly man-bites-dog news.
Unfortunately, the debate over a landmark lawsuit seeking damages from the industry focused a lot on lawsuits and left out one little fact: Louisiana’s coast is still eroding, day by day.
Over the past 80 years, an estimated 2,000 square miles have gone underwater. That’s the size of the state of Rhode Island.
What was the Legislature’s response?
The discussion in the Legislature included extensive criticism of the lawsuit and contingency fee negotiated by the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.
The industry was not content with its ally, Gov. Bobby Jindal, ousting some members of the board who supported the lawsuit. Instead, the industry pushed a bill — almost certain to produce a dispute in court — that seeks to kill the lawsuit already filed and prevent future lawsuits against Big Oil.
After last-minute objections from some legal scholars, the governor prudently agreed to consult with the state attorney general about whether provisions of the bill might conflict with state or parishes’ litigation related to the BP oil spill of 2010, or future oil spills.
Perhaps inevitable in a conflict of legal opinion, politics rules: Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who has been supportive of the lawsuit, recommended that Jindal veto the bill to kill it. The Jindal administration, which opposes the suit, disagreed with Caldwell’s legal thinking. The governor signed the bill Friday.
As bad as it is, other bills could have done more to curtail the future independence of the authority.
The new law is nevertheless a victory for business. “This bill will restore order and coordination to Louisiana’s approach on how best to tackle this coastal challenge,” said Stephen Waguespack, of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
We do not approve of “vigilante justice-style lawsuits” that Waguespack decried. But the alternative to the authority lawsuit cannot be muddling along with an inadequately funded coastal plan that will take decades to put into place at the current rate. Apparently, lawmakers expect a bailout from Uncle Sam.
Even Jindal administration officials have said industry practices bear part of the responsibility for coastal erosion. But the administration has not advanced a plan of its own to hold energy companies accountable for their role in an ongoing environmental catastrophe.
An independent board’s judgment is being overruled because the industry has the power over legislators to make it so. Some of those same legislators were among those pushing the post-Katrina bills to jettison the old political levee boards in favor of independent commissioners on the authority.
It is not too much to say that the people of the greater New Orleans area, and reformers statewide who backed independent boards for flood protection, have been betrayed by the majorities of lawmakers beholden to the industry and LABI.
What will be the response of LABI and the industry when it comes time to raise taxes to pay for coastal protection and restoration? The question answers itself.
One can have some problems, as we did, with the genesis of the authority lawsuit. Yet it arose in response to a real problem that has not gone away.
The rising tide, literally, of sea levels and waves battering our coast continues.