It appears that the lawsuit seeking compensation from oil companies for ravaging the wetlands was not so frivolous after all.
Two of the defendants evidently don’t think so anyway, for they just agreed to settle their civil suit in federal court. Meanwhile, state judge Janice Clark has given the oil industry and its leading apologist, Gov. Bobby Jindal, further fits by declaring that a law retroactively blocking the lawsuit was unconstitutionally enacted.
The New Orleans-area Flood Protection Authority, which Jindal alleged had no standing to sue in the first place, may not yet be in the catbird seat; Clark’s ruling will be appealed, and the federal courts have yet to weigh in. But oil and gas are starting to feel the heat.
The two companies that have settled, White Oak and Chroma, are only bit players, having agreed to pay a mere $50,000 between them for their role in the destruction of the marshlands. That still leaves 95 other defendants, including all the multi-national oil and gas corporations that may have caused the most damage.
White Oak and Chroma, in court papers, “deny all responsibility and liability,” but this is just the usual lawyerly folderol. They are not paying money into Louisiana’s flood protection program out of the goodness of their hearts. The settlement represents the first admission of legal liability from the oil and gas industry that helped destroy natural flood defenses with their canals and pipelines.
The possibility that other defendants will throw in the towel must be a strong one. With the momentum clearly on the Flood Protection Authority’s side, and the prospect of litigation stretching over the horizon, the case for cutting losses grows more persuasive.
As usual, the voice most likely to win friends for the Flood Protection Authority’s stance belongs to Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. Nobody could do a better job of undermining his own case than Briggs, who has frequently claimed that oil and gas companies avoid Louisiana because of its litigious climate. Asked in a deposition a few months ago to name a single company that had decamped for that reason, or point to a single well that had not been drilled, he had no answer. It also emerged in that deposition that he had no clue what was in several scientific studies of wetlands loss in Louisiana.
Undeterred, Briggs came out swinging when White Oak and Chroma agreed to cough up. It was “hardly news,” he said, because the settlement was “but a drop in the bucket towards the $10 billion that the attorneys are looking to rob from the industry.”
The Flood Protection lawsuit, according to Briggs, is “an assault on the oil and gas industry and an attempt to extort cash from the very industry that provides thousands of jobs to our state and provides energy to our nation.”
Surely the oil and gas industry is embarrassed for such an intemperate voice to be raised on its behalf. Certainly, the industry is vital to the state economy, but it did not descend on us for philanthropic reasons. If there has been any robbery, it is our wetlands that have gone missing over many years while corporate interests have made off with countless billions.
And if Briggs would only read the studies commissioned by the industry for which he speaks, he would know there is no dispute about its contribution to wetlands destruction. What the lawsuit seeks is recompense for the companies’ failure to honor their legal obligation to repair the damage.
Perhaps Briggs cannot tell the difference between extortion and a request for fair compensation, but many of his members can. They might have preferred from the start to avoid the courts altogether and let good will and common sense fashion an accommodation.
Now White Oak, Chroma and the Flood Protection Authority have shown that it can be done. It is a small beginning, but a significant vindication.
James Gill’s email address is jgill@ theadvocate.com.