Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to step up the fight to win damages from oil and gas companies for their role in damaging Louisiana's wetlands over many decades, saying Wednesday that he wants all coastal parishes to join in litigation against the energy industry.
If the parishes don't sue, the state will, Edwards said.
That’s a much more aggressive role than the state has ever before taken on the issue, and it would represent a major expansion of the legal effort already underway in four parishes to hold numerous oil and gas companies accountable for the damage caused to the state's coastal wetlands by nearly a century of drilling and dredging.
"We are going to pursue the litigation so that there's a timely but successful resolution, particularly for the parishes along the coast, because this is just too important," Edwards said.
Edwards' position promises to ratchet up hostilities between him and state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who initially appeared to support the coastal erosion suits but recently has sought to block the governor from hiring outside attorneys for the effort and has welcomed legal setbacks for the parishes.
In response to Edwards' statement Wednesday, Landry's office released a statement calling for all new cases to be halted.
The state's powerful oil and gas industry immediately condemned the plan.
“Whatever their outcome, these lawsuits are not a funding mechanism for state or local government budgets, and they will not help protect the coast," said a joint statement from the state's two biggest oil industry groups. "On the contrary, they divert critical time and resources away from the industry’s support of Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts, which have been underway for decades.”
The rationale for Edwards in persuading more local governments to join the fight is to gain leverage and bring the energy industry to the bargaining table, where the state can push for a big, lump-sum settlement.
"To do this piecemeal over a long period of time is in no one's best interest," Edwards said. "We need to make sure we have a global resolution to all of these claims."
The Governor's Office will be sending letters to 16 parishes later this week encouraging them to file their own suits and putting them on notice that Edwards is prepared to step in if they do not. They include all parishes where energy companies have filed for permits to do work in wetlands.
Four parishes have already filed suits: Jefferson, Plaquemines, Cameron and Vermilion. Those suits have been winding their way through state courts, in some cases for years. They were initially overshadowed by a more all-encompassing case filed by a New Orleans-area levee authority, but that suit was dismissed by a federal judge, though it remains on appeal.
Soon after taking office this year, Landry and Edwards both turned their attention to the parish cases and had their offices intervene in those suits. While unlikely allies — Landry is a conservative Republican, backed by and supportive of the energy industry, while Edwards is a Democrat who has not shied away from calling for a settlement — the two at first appeared to be on the same page.
They both met with coastal parishes to discuss filing additional suits, possibly along the same lines as the plan announced Monday.
That uneasy partnership fell apart, however, and the energy industry rejected engaging in talks aimed at a settlement.
Last month, when a Jefferson Parish judge dismissed one of the cases before his court, Landry agreed with the decision, even though he had first filed motions opposing it.
Shortly afterward, Edwards hired a group of attorneys, including some of his top campaign donors, to pursue the cases, which resulted in accusations he was trying to benefit his political backers. Landry has refused to give his approval for hiring those firms — something that is typically a procedural step with little discussion or scrutiny, even if an attorney general opposes the intent of a lawsuit.
Edwards stood behind the attorneys' proposed hiring Wednesday, arguing that his goal was to make sure the state had the legal firepower to pursue the suits successfully. He also noted that the attorneys' contracts capped their hourly fees at $225, less than half of what’s allowed under state law.
"If I were trying to enrich these lawyers, why would I have $225 an hour instead of $500?" Edwards asked, accusing Landry of misrepresenting or misunderstanding the deal.
Landry fired back Wednesday evening with a statement arguing against what he described as a contract with "an illegal contingency fee arrangement" and saying no more suits should be filed.
"These matters share the same legal issues, all of which can be addressed in the existing suits," Landry said. "The only thing additional lawsuits do is raise the cost of litigation, keeping the legal meter running unnecessarily. Ultimately, the more money wasted in litigation is less money going to the coast."
Landry and Edwards have a meeting scheduled for next week to discuss the suits as well as other points of conflict between their offices, including spats over funding.
Any money won from the energy companies would go toward implementing the state's Coastal Master Plan, a proposal aimed at restoring the 1,900 square miles of land that has washed away since early in the last century. The initial $50 billion cost of that proposal is expected to increase, possibly dramatically, over the coming years.
The total amount that the suits could bring in is unknown, but the damages they allege are expected to be in the billions.
Matthew Block, the governor’s executive counsel, argued that trying for one overarching agreement on what oil and gas companies owe the state because of coastal erosion would ultimately mean fewer headaches for both sides.
"A global resolution that gives some finality to the industry and gives us what the state needs to continue this process of developing funds for the master plan — all those things have to be discussed together," Block said.
"I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in the oil and gas community who said they were turned down from a meeting with the governor or this administration," he added.