Author John Barry and his former colleagues on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East board may have watched their landmark lawsuit against the oil and gas industry get pummeled by politicians and ultimately dismissed in federal court. But judging from some intriguing developments in Baton Rouge, it seems they were on to something all along.
In 2013, the regional levee board filed a bombshell suit against 97 oil and gas companies seeking damages or action to help reverse coastal land loss their activities had either caused or exacerbated. Three coastal parishes later filed a total of 39 more targeted lawsuits seeking similar remedies.
Politically, the levee authority suit backfired. Then-Gov. Bobby Jindal used it as an excuse to remove Barry and as many other suit supporters as he could from the supposedly independent authority. The industry-friendly Legislature passed a bill aimed at retroactively killing the lawsuit. And while supporters were fighting that challenge, U.S. District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown dismissed the suit, although her decision remains under appeal.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits by Jefferson, Plaquemines and Cameron parishes remained active, although little appeared to be happening.
Now that Jindal’s out of office, though, new Gov. John Bel Edwards is approaching the issue with a fresh eye, and there are signs that he’s prepared to push the powerful industry to step up — with the help of an unlikely partner.
That Edwards is interested in revisiting the matter comes as no surprise. As a Democratic state representative, he opposed efforts to derail anti-industry efforts. And as a candidate for governor, he and the super political action committees that favored him raised big money from plaintiff lawyers, including those involved in the suits. Industry leaders, meanwhile, lined up behind Republican rivals David Vitter and Scott Angelle, although some have since held fundraisers for Edwards.
The new development here is that Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry, a former congressman and longtime cheerleader for the industry who once held up a “Drilling=Jobs” sign while President Barack Obama spoke before a joint session of Congress, say they’re on the same page.
Both Landry and, more recently, the Edwards administration have intervened in the parish lawsuits, with an apparent eye toward making sure any money recovered would go toward coastal restoration.
When he made his announcement, Landry had this to say: “Continuing to allow these parties to steer the public policy of Louisiana regarding our coastal restoration and protection is unhelpful. … We cannot allow these differing, and competing, interests to push claims which collectively impact the public policy for our coast and entire state.
Explaining his administration’s involvement last week, Edwards chimed in with similar sentiments.
“What we know is that the parishes filed lawsuits not just in their name but in the name of Louisiana,” he said. “Our one shot to make sure this is done right and our interests are adequately served by these lawsuits is in intervening.”
Even before he took office, Edwards had suggested that he wanted to pursue some sort of global settlement and said he planned to convene a conversation with industry executives during his first year. Edwards said he envisioned a win-win situation in which oil and gas companies not only partner with the state to implement its coastal master plan but protect their own interests in the process.
“We’re going to have a discussion. If they don’t want litigation, then they ought to voluntarily step up and do some meaningful restoration, and if they are amenable to that, we can do some wonderful things,” he said in December. But, he added, “I firmly believe that if there isn’t at least some implicit understanding that litigation follows an unsuccessful negotiation, there is not going to be a successful negotiation.”
That makes a lot of sense. And if this new effort results in some meaningful progress on restoring Louisiana’s vanishing coastal wetlands, much credit should go to the people who had the foresight to start the conversation in the first place.