Industry leaders pan settlement in coastal restoration _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Brenden Neville State and federal scientists and officials inspect a recently formed marsh island, part of a freshwater diversion project to counteract coastal erosion, during a tour for federal and state coastal restoration representatives hosted by Plaquemines Parish on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011, in Venice. Such diversion projects are seen as one of the only possible ways to stem the rapid erosion of the state's vanishing coastal wetlands, but funding is limited, and some doubt whether diversions are as effective as proponents say. MAGS OUT / INTERNET OUT/ONLINE OUT/NO SALES/TV OUT/FOREIGN OUT/ LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC./GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT/225/10/12/IN REGISTER/LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT/

Gov. John Bel Edwards is pushing to get the oil and natural gas industries to pay for restoring Louisiana’s fragile coast by encouraging them to settle lawsuits alleging they caused extensive damage to coastal lands.

The governor met with industry leaders and company executives on May 13 and asked them to settle the numerous lawsuits, filed by local governments, and help pay for coastal restoration, according to letters obtained Friday.

Industry leaders have rejected his request. But, the governor, in a letter sent to industry organizations on Thursday, said he wanted to meet with them again to discuss settlements.

Three coastal parishes are seeking compensation for alleged state permit violations, coastal damage and pollution. Earlier this year, the governor and Attorney General Jeff Landry intervened in those suits.

Louisiana has lost about 1,900 square miles of coast since the 1930s and continues to lose about 17 square miles a year. It is one of this impoverished state’s most dire problems.

In Thursday’s letter, Edwards said he was disappointed that last week’s meeting did not result in “a more constructive dialogue” and “a possible structure to resolve the related liability issues.”

“At this point, we have two choices — work together toward an amicable solution or spend years in litigation,” Edwards wrote. “There should be no doubt that it is in the best interests of Louisiana and the industry to choose the former option.”

Industry leaders, though, said they are not considering settlements.

“It is evident that the state is seeking to move us into an area of discussion that is impossible,” said a letter from Chris John, president of Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, and Don Briggs, president of Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

The letter said the state was seeking to hold the oil and gas industry “accountable for a substantial amount of damages without making any effort to establish liability.”

At issue are claims that oil and gas companies violated their permits by failing to fix damage caused by oil drilling, such as digging thousands of miles of canals that scientists say led to salt water intrusion and land loss. The oil industry disputes that contention and argues permits were not violated.

“The lawsuits were filed by profit-motivated lawyers, and are not a funding mechanism” for coastal restoration, the industry groups wrote.

The position taken by Edwards, a Democrat, is very different from that of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jindal was opposed to suits against the industry over coastal damage.

In a telephone interview, Briggs said Edwards suggested in the May 13 meeting that Louisiana faces spending $100 billion on coastal restoration over the coming decades and that the industry should pay a sizeable amount of that.

Briggs said the industry is not interested in settlement talks.

“The reality is that we are not in any negotiations,” he said. “We are not even talking about that. The only person talking about that is the governor.”