Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry is seeking to assume control of nearly 40 lawsuits filed by three parishes that allege oil and gas companies violated their permits and caused significant damage to coastal properties.
Landry’s move to intervene in the cases is expected to face opposition from the parishes and the private lawyers that represent them.
The suits were filed by Jefferson, Plaquemines and Cameron parishes in recent years under a state law that allows local governments to sue in cases of coastal damage. But Landry, in a statement Tuesday, said the vast scope of the issue means state government — not individual parishes — should be in charge of the cases.
“Continuing to allow these parties to steer the public policy of Louisiana regarding our coastal restoration and protection is unhelpful,” said Landry, who took office in January.
“We cannot allow these differing, and competing, interests to push claims which collectively impact the public policy for our coast and entire state. Louisiana’s public policy should be dictated by the rule of law and its elected officials.”
The coastal erosion lawsuits have been the subject of significant political battles between the lawyers pursuing the cases and the oil and gas industry, which has sought to quash the suits before they go to trial.
It was not immediately clear what Landry’s intervention will mean for the future of the 39 cases involved.
A spokeswoman for his office said those claims will continue to be pursued but that there is no plan to expand the suits to other parishes or properties.
“This intervention will ensure that the collaborative work of the state and parishes on coastal restoration is not threatened with continuous, fragmented lawsuits. It allows these issues to be addressed in totality and in a fair, consistent manner,” Landry said. “I truly believe we can balance the tremendous benefits of the oil and gas industry, which continues to employ thousands of our neighbors, and the ongoing coastal crisis, which threatens our very existence.”
Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes filed their lawsuits in 2013 under contracts with private law firms. Those firms have since filed more suits in Cameron Parish. St. Bernard Parish also has considered similar cases.
The Plaquemines Parish Council has since voted to drop its suits, though they remain technically alive in the court system.
The Jefferson cases are moving close to trial, something that could be complicated by Landry’s intervention.
John Carmouche, one of the lawyers working on the cases, said he had not read the details of the filings from the Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday but that the move amounted to an extension of previous efforts to end the parish suits.
“We are wondering why the attorney general feels he has the authority to take parish rights away when that same bill failed last year in the Legislature,” Carmouche said. “Parishes are concerned and should be concerned that their rights are being taken away.”
Carmouche was referring to a bill aimed at killing a similar but unrelated suit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East that sought to hold dozens of energy companies accountable for coastal erosion along vast swaths of Louisiana’s coastline.
That bill initially also would have ended the parish lawsuits, but lobbying by then-Jefferson Parish President John Young and other officials succeeded in having those provisions stripped out before the measure passed.
The change to state law never ended up becoming a factor in the Flood Protection Authority’s case, which was dismissed by a federal judge who ruled the authority was not the appropriate entity to bring the suit. That decision is currently being weighed by a panel of judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.