The Plaquemines Parish Council fell one vote short Thursday of canceling lawsuits it filed several years ago accusing oil and gas companies of widespread damage to wetlands in the parish that exacerbated coastal erosion.
The suits were part of a series filed by parishes across the state's Gulf coastline seeking restitution for damages to wetlands. They are expected to be the first to go to trial.
The resolution before the council, authored by Councilman Irvin Juneau, would have ordered the parish's attorneys to dismiss the cases, which are now in federal court but which the attorneys want to have transferred back to state courts.
When it came time to vote on Thursday, opponents of the suits actually came out on top 4-3. But with Councilman Beau Black and Councilwoman Nicole Smith Williams abstaining because of their connections to the energy industry, the resolution fell a vote shy of having the five votes on the nine-member council needed to take effect.
John Carmouche, the lead attorney in the parish lawsuits, accused oil and gas companies and their allies of trying to derail the suits ahead of a trial that is expected to start as early as next year.
“It’s political pressure, it's unethical, it's disturbing,” Carmouche said. “We’re going back to the days where big oil can pay millions of dollars and threaten council members.”
Leaders of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, two prominent industry groups that have fought against coastal erosion lawsuits, argued that even though Thursday's vote failed, it represented a victory of sorts, and they pledged to fight on.
“The people have spoken, and it’s jobs over lawsuits,” LOGA President Gifford Briggs said in a news release. “This is just the beginning. We will continue to fight parish by parish to build a better Louisiana and create an environment that welcomes future investment."
Plaquemines is one of six parishes that have sued oil and gas companies in recent years over damage the companies allegedly caused during decades of activity in coastal areas.
The suits allege that the companies never repaired damage caused by drilling wells and dredging canals in the wetlands — activities that the suits say hastened the speed of coastal erosion by allowing salt water into the marshlands.
But even though Plaquemines was one of the first parishes to file suit in 2013, the lawsuits have remained a contentious issue in a parish that is in need of funds to battle coastal erosion, yet where the oil and gas industry is responsible for a significant number of jobs.
“I think they were getting scared that they were actually going to have to present evidence to a jury or a judge, and they know it’s not going to be a good case for them,” said Carmouche.
Then-Gov. Bobby Jindal opposed the suits, along with an unrelated and ultimately failed case brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East, arguing they would hurt the industry and cost the state jobs. But Gov. John Bel Edwards has been an enthusiastic supporter of the parish lawsuits, intervening in the cases that have been filed and urging other parishes to follow suit.
The Parish Council put the lawsuits on hold in 2015, only to reverse course once again and allow them to move forward the next year.
The complications of the suits for parish officials have only been heightened by the parish’s upcoming elections. Councilman and former Parish President Benny Rousselle, who voted to go ahead with the suits, said Wednesday that the Juneau resolution was “an orchestrated effort … to make a last-ditch effort prior to the election to derail settlement negotiations.”