The City of New Orleans has joined six southern Louisiana parishes by filing a lawsuit against oil and gas companies over their role in coastal land loss, Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration announced late Friday.
In rejecting an attempt to consolidate some 40 lawsuits against the energy industry for damages to Louisiana’s coast, a panel of federal judge…
The suit, filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, echoes other efforts to hold the energy industry accountable for damage done to wetlands and marshes through decades of drilling and dredging.
By wearing away those natural protective barriers, the industry has contributed to making New Orleans more vulnerable to storm surge and threatens the very existence of the city, Cantrell said in a statement.
"New Orleans has been harmed," she said. "The people of our city have been harmed, and our way of life is threatened by the damage done to our coastal wetlands.”
The suit names a dozen defendants including the city's electrical utility, Entergy New Orleans, plus Chevron and ExxonMobil, and calls on them to pay to restore the wetlands.
"Given the challenges we face when it comes to our infrastructure, the additional strain of these damages demands action. Getting our fair share means being made whole by the companies who have harmed us,” Cantrell said.
The oil and gas industry responded by stressing the number of energy companies and their workers based in the city and implying that the case would mean the end of partnerships with the city and its community organizations.
"Lawsuits do not build relationships," said Marc Ehrhardt, executive director of the Grow Louisiana Coalition, a pro-industry group. "They end them."
“It is unfortunate to see the City of New Orleans bow to the (Edwards) administration’s pressure for more self-serving lawsuits,” said Gifford Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association. “These lawsuits are nothing more than a trial lawyer’s version of Hadacol; they promise snake oil to heal all your ailments, but do nothing other than line the peddlers’ pockets."
Similar cases brought by a half-dozen parishes — including Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. John the Baptist — are wending their way through the courts. There had been efforts to get New Orleans to join those suits, which started in 2013, but former Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration took no steps to do that.
The Plaquemines Parish Council fell one vote short Thursday of canceling lawsuits it filed several years ago accusing oil and gas companies of…
Those suits allege that the oil and gas industry damaged specific areas and did not restore them in violation of the permits that allowed them to drill and dredge.
The New Orleans case also alleges specific damage by the energy industry, but in addition it takes a more global approach to the dangers posed by the eroding coast.
Coastal lands are "quickly disappearing as a result of the failures of oil and gas exploration and production and pipeline actors to maintain and control the effect of their activities on the coastal environment in the vicinity of New Orleans in a manner that members of that industry, including the defendants here, specifically foresaw," the suit says.
"As a result, New Orleans faces grave harms. The Gulf of Mexico is perched on her stoop," the suit continues. "Commerce, transportation, culture, the economy, and most importantly the people are in danger."
The suit alleges that energy companies failed to maintain the canals they used to access and transport oil and gas and that pipelines through the wetlands caused further damage.
"Because each defendant failed to either contain its operations within permitted bounds or to secure a coastal use permit when required, to simply follow the rules, to fix what they broke, the network of canals and other facilities they allowed to degrade the coastal lands has ravaged New Orleans' protective landscape," according to the suit.
A black-headed gull stood atop an abandoned oil wellhead on a recent afternoon in a waterway known locally as Pencil Canal. Nearby, a rusted o…
In some ways, the suit resembles a failed lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which oversees the area's east bank levees and flood control structures. That suit, which sought to hold the industry responsible for a wide range of damage, was tossed out when the courts decided the Flood Protection Authority did not have standing to sue.
New Orleans' suit was filed by a legal team similar to the one behind the Flood Protection Authority's suit, led by attorney Gladstone Jones. Jones could not be reached for comment Friday.
John Barry, an author and former member of the Flood Protection Authority who led the charge on its suit before being removed from the board by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, said he "applauds the mayor" and said the suit "demonstrates real leadership and a seriousness of purpose."
While New Orleans has historically had far less oil and gas activity than other nearby parishes — and therefore less money likely is at stake than in the other suits — Barry said the suit was significant given New Orleans' prominence within the state and nation.
Oil and gas companies concede that their canals, most of them long since abandoned, played a major role in shrinking the Louisiana wetlands.
"The goal of the (Flood Protection Authority) suit was always to create a critical mass that would bring the industry to the table," he said. "This is a step closer to that. That doesn’t mean it's going to bring the industry to its knees, but it's another step and an important step."
Besides Entergy New Orleans, the defendants in the suit include Apache Louisiana Minerals LLC, Aspect Energy LLC, Chaparral Energy LLC, Chevron, Collins Pipeline, EOG Resources, ExxonMobil Pipeline Co., Gulf South Pipeline Co., Southern Natural Gas Co. and Whiting Oil and Gas Corp.