Call it a $274 million loose end.
That’s how much hangs in the balance for the University of Louisiana and Southern University systems, which filed lawsuits against BP to recover that much in what they said was lost revenue tied to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Until this past week, it was unclear whether the schools’ claims were resolved as part of BP’s record $18.7 billion settlement with the federal government and the five Gulf Coast states that were affected by the accident, which killed 11 men and spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf.
Many of the settlement’s details have been kept under wraps since it was announced last month. It directs $6.8 billion to Louisiana — the largest amount for any of the states involved. Most of the money will go to coastal restoration and repairing the spill’s damage to wetlands and wildlife habitats.
Lawyers handling the two university systems’ claims issued a statement Monday making clear that they think the schools’ claims remain unresolved.
The two systems were the only public colleges or universities in Louisiana to file suits against BP over the disaster. Attorneys for the schools filed the claims in 2013 for lost revenue, property damage and civil and punitive damages. The University of Louisiana System initially claimed more than $132 million in losses, while the Southern University System pegged its damages at about $99 million.
Now, after further review, the total losses are estimated to be closer to $274 million. But it’s unclear if or when the money may begin to flow or if it was intended to be resolved through Louisiana’s share of the overall settlement.
So far, neither side is saying much. Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office did not respond to requests for comment; BP spokesman Geoff Morrell declined comment.
BP has signed off on the larger settlement, satisfied that it largely resolved its liabilities to public agencies, including up to $1 billion set aside for more than 500 claims filed by local governments along the Gulf Coast.
“As institutions of higher learning, the claims of the two systems are unique from local government and other state claims. These claims remain unresolved,” Baton Rouge lawyer Winston DeCuir Sr., who is handling the universities’ claims, said in the statement last week.
DeCuir said the claims are “the subject of ongoing communications between the university systems and the court, the Louisiana attorney general and BP.”
He declined further comment “until the matter has been fully resolved.”
The university systems’ lawsuits claim that the 2011 lawsuit the state filed against BP sought damages for “long-term economic impacts and lost revenues associated with the spill” for all state entities, including universities. The systems said they filed separate suits in order to supplement the state’s claims and specify the financial damages the schools suffered.
In a 2013 economic impact analysis that accompanied the systems’ claims, the schools said “any detrimental impact on a regional economy will have both a direct impact and a diminishing indirect impact on every component of the community.”
“When every segment of a community’s economy is detrimentally impacted, there is an inevitable loss of jobs throughout that community or region,” the analysis said.
As local jobs disappeared after the spill, it said, fewer families could afford to pay for a college education. “As employment was lost, the ability of students to fund their own college educations also diminished,” the analysis stated. “This inability is reflected in attendance losses and a failure of (each) university to meet national enrollment growth averages.”
Southern, which has more than 15,000 students across five campuses, said in its claim that its campuses are located in areas that were especially hard-hit by the spill. Using past enrollment figures, it estimated that 10,970 students did not enroll at the Southern University schools in the years after the spill.
The University of Louisiana System also felt pinched. With more than 100,000 students on eight campuses, the system’s analysis said five of its universities are situated in severely affected areas, including the University of New Orleans, Nicholls State in Thibodaux, McNeese State in Lake Charles, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.
After facing sharp drops in state funding and a dwindling enrollment, UNO officials have kept a close watch on how the sprawling litigation plays out.
The cash-strapped Lakefront school spent last year looking at ways to shore up its finances, including trimming some of its degree programs. Since taking the helm in 2012, UNO President Peter Fos has eliminated at least 140 positions.
UNO’s claim against BP was initially for almost $124 million — by far the largest part of the total UL claim. That money would provide a major financial lift for the school, which claimed in court filings that its enrollment fell in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 but had rebounded until the 2010 oil spill.
“As the economy of New Orleans suffered greatly, the economic hardships of the region were reflected in continually diminished enrollment,” according to an economic analysis that accompanied UNO’s 2013 filing.
Fos declined comment last week.
Elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, the University of West Florida in Pensacola, which has nearly 12,000 students, may be the only other educational institutions that filed a lawsuit against BP over the spill. The university filed suit in 2011 to recover lost revenue and increased costs of providing public services, court records show.
The school settled its claim for nearly $178,000, university spokeswoman Megan Gonzalez said Friday.
In Mississippi, no public colleges or universities filed claims against BP, said Rachael Ring, a spokeswoman for Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. Ring said the state’s settlement “resolves all claims for all Mississippi agencies and departments.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.