In rejecting an attempt to consolidate some 40 lawsuits against the energy industry for damages to Louisiana’s coast, a panel of federal judges has advanced the latest chapter in what promises to be a long legal saga concerning the state’s fragile wetlands.
Regardless of who prevails in the courtroom, the prospect of complex environmental questions playing out in multiple courtrooms doesn’t seem like victory to us.
In fact, it feels more like defeat. The plaintiffs, which involve five coastal parishes, are seeking relief in the courts because state leaders, over several generations, have failed to advance a comprehensive solution to the state’s land loss that includes all the key stakeholders. In the absence of resourceful and courageous political leadership, this issue has, by default, ended up in the courts, which can be pretty blunt instruments for enacting public policy.
Former Gov. Bobby Jindal had worked to derail similar litigation against the energy industry, pointing to a political solution as a better alternative. But Jindal didn’t really move the ball on such a grand bargain, nor has his successor, John Bel Edwards. Edwards had tried to nudge coastal parishes into jumping on the lawsuit wagon, a potential boon to the trial lawyers who helped him get elected.
Louisiana’s coastland has been disappearing for years, starved of replenishing sediment by levees that limit the sweep of the Mississippi River as it flows toward the Gulf of Mexico. In years past, oil and gas operations accelerated the coast’s decline by weakening the local ecology. Rising sea levels have exacerbated the problem, too.
It’s a complicated crisis, and the legal system will now have a hand in determining specific degrees of culpability among the players.
But that could take years, with a big chunk of any potential financial settlement going to the trial lawyers. That’s not the best way to make the coast and its communities more resilient.
With any luck, the lawsuits will create momentum for a global settlement of environmental claims — something more strategic than the current piecemeal litigation that cannot help but produce a fragmented result.
In the meantime, as the lawyers litigate and the judges deliberate, the coastline of Louisiana continues to sink.