Supporters of a controversial lawsuit seeking to force oil and gas companies to repair alleged widespread damage to Louisiana’s coast got some breathing room Thursday when a nominating committee narrowly recommended that a coastal scientist who supports the suit should retain his seat on the board.
Barring unexpected political maneuvering or changes of heart, the committee’s nomination means Paul Kemp will continue to serve on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East at least through next year’s legislative session, maintaining a slim majority on the board in favor of continuing the case it brought last year against more than 90 oil and gas companies.
That would frustrate Gov. Bobby Jindal’s continuing efforts to remove commissioners who support the suit from the board and should provide time for a federal judge to decide the crucial issue of whether a state law intended to kill the suit does, in fact, do so.
In response to the nominating committee’s action, the Jindal administration pledged to continue fighting to kill the suit.
The committee’s meeting Thursday was relatively contentious, and Kemp’s renomination to a technical seat on the authority came by a one-vote margin after committee members deadlocked twice on the issue.
At the same time, some of the nine committee members at the meeting pushed back at suggestions that the lawsuit should play any role in their recommendations for authority members. They said they should be focused on picking candidates who would do the best job of overseeing the levees, floodwalls and other flood defenses for the east bank of the New Orleans area.
“I have no idea why this committee is debating the lawsuit,” said Nick Altiero, who represents Tulane University’s School of Science and Engineering on the committee. Altiero said he and the other members, who represent universities, professional organizations and think tanks, were put on the nominating committee simply to judge the qualifications of applicants for the authority.
“We should vote on credentials. We should put the best possible people on there, and they will vote the way they vote,” Altiero said.
The committee then voted to recommend flood authority Commissioner Jeff Angers, whom Gov. Bobby Jindal appointed last year and who has opposed the suit, and engineer Mark Morgan, who also is opposed to the case, as options for a second, nontechnical seat on the board, with the governor deciding which one to select.
Under the complex rules governing who serves on the board, the nominating committee must submit names to be approved by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The nominating committee submits only one name for technical and scientific seats on the authority, essentially giving the committee the power to decide who fills those slots, but it sends up two nominees for each of the nontechnical slots.
With only three nominees in the running for two seats, Thursday’s meeting focused on whether Kemp would remain in a technical seat or be recommended as one of the two candidates for the at-large seat, with Morgan given the technical slot. Given Jindal’s opposition to the lawsuit, which already has led to the ousting of four commissioners who voted to file it, the governor almost certainly would have decided against reappointing Kemp.
The flood protection authority filed the suit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies last summer, accusing them of doing billions of dollars in damage to coastal wetlands through drilling, dredging and other activities. That damage has, in turn, allegedly led to coastal erosion that has hurt flood protection in the New Orleans area by removing wetlands that had served as a barrier to storm surge.
The case has been attacked by Jindal and other elected officials, and state lawmakers this year passed a law aimed at retroactively blocking the suit. U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown is expected to hear arguments from the authority’s lawyers, who say that law is unconstitutional and doesn’t apply to the authority anyway, and from the oil companies about the effect of the law and other issues that could determine whether the case moves forward at a hearing in November.
Kemp is a well-respected expert on coastal issues and, as some of his supporters noted, the only sitting member of the authority who specializes in studying areas outside the flood protection system. The former head of the Audubon Society’s Gulf Coast Initiative, he also has been noted for his studies of the land bridge between New Orleans and Slidell and its impact on reducing storm surge.
“To say Kemp is not qualified as a technical engineer is pretty much absurd,” Louisiana Engineering Society representative Lee Alexander said.
The split on the board led to two tie votes, with four committee members supporting Kemp for the technical slot and four supporting Morgan. The tie eventually was broken by Chacko John, of the Louisiana Geological Survey at LSU.
John abstained from the first two votes, saying he didn’t feel there had been enough applicants. He also noted the complexity of the decision and voiced concern over how much weight to give the lawsuit and the governor’s presumed opposition to Kemp’s nomination.
“There is no debate in my mind about the qualifications of Paul Kemp,” John said. “We nominated him the first time, and he was on the board and did a good job. As far as Mark Morgan is concerned, he is also a good candidate.”
John said after the meeting that he voted in favor of keeping Kemp in his current seat because of his credentials. He also noted that this approach could put an extra engineering specialist on the board, should Jindal appoint Morgan to the other seat.
The strongest opposition to keeping Kemp in the technical spot came from South Lafourche Levee District General Manager Windell Curole, who has opposed the suit since it was filed and who represents the Association of State Floodplain Managers on the nominating committee. Curole said the authority’s decision to continue pursuing the case in the face of attacks from Jindal and other attempts to kill the suit have taken the focus away from its main purpose.
“The way things fell, there was a time when it was obvious that this was not the best (approach) for flood protection in New Orleans,” Curole said.
Morgan’s appointment to the technical seat also was supported by committee Chairman Jay Lapeyre, who several times asked the other members whether supporting the lawsuit was in the best interests of the board and of flood protection in the area. He was joined by American Society of Civil Engineers representative Jerry Klier, who said he attends church with Morgan.
Klier noted that Morgan served on the flood protection authority’s sister board on the West Bank when the two entities were first created in 2007, and he said more engineers are needed on the east bank board.
Other than an easier nomination process, there is no difference between commissioners who hold technical seats and those in the nontechnical seats.
Kemp’s appointment is not yet a done deal, and the prospects for the lawsuit itself remain far from certain.
The Jindal administration tried earlier to reject the nomination of a pro-lawsuit commissioner, former authority President Tim Doody, though the nominating committee successfully pushed back against that effort. Doody was later removed from the board after Jindal was given the choice between appointing him or St. Bernard resident Tyrone Ben.
Assuming the governor accepts Kemp’s nomination, Kemp would serve on the authority at least until the state Senate votes on his confirmation, presumably during the legislative session next year. If he is rejected — a strong possibility in view of most senators’ support for the bill intended to kill the lawsuit — the nominating committee would have to find someone else to fill his seat.
Asked about their next steps, Jindal administration officials said they will continue to work against the lawsuit.?“We are opposed to the lawsuit because it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and exceeds the authority of (the flood protection authority),” Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates said. “And we will continue to use the full authority of the Governor’s Office to stop it.”