The Plaquemines Parish Council on Thursday will consider whether to withdraw — for the second time — from lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies for damages related to coastal land loss.
The council resolution, sponsored by Councilman Irvin Juneau, would order attorneys working the case to "cease and desist from performing any work associated with the legal action currently pending under the Coastal Zone Management Act," according to a draft of the meeting agenda.
The potential vote marks the latest shift in sentiment among council members who voted to suspend action on the lawsuit in 2015 only to reverse course the next year. And with an election for parish president and several council seats coming next month, some critics of the move see it as political gamesmanship ahead of the vote.
"I don't know what my decision is going to be but I am leaning toward staying at the table," said councilman and former parish president Benny Rousselle. The resolution, he said, was "an orchestrated effort ... to make a last-ditch effort prior to the election to derail settlement negotiations."
Irvin Juneau and all but one of the other members of the council did not respond to requests for comment. Councilman Beau Black said he would recuse himself from voting because he works for an oil company.
Plaquemines is one of six parishes that has filed suit against oil and gas companies for land loss they attribute to drilling activities. Specifically, they point to the canals the companies dug as contributing to saltwater intrusion, which leads to marsh converting to open water.
The suits have been controversial from the start — when they were first filed in 2013, then-Governor Bobby Jindal publicly denounced them as job-killers. But Governor John Bel Edwards has supported the lawsuits, intervening on behalf of the parishes.
The Plaquemines suit was expected to be the first to go to trial, perhaps as early as next spring. Plaintiffs attorneys have worked hard to keep it in state court, where they feel they are more likely to get a favorable ruling. The oil companies have repeatedly tried to move it to federal court.
Parish President Amos Cormier said the lawsuits could provide a needed source of revenue to help the parish rebuild land it has lost over the last several decades. But with an election next month, he declined to say whether he was against the resolution, reflecting the ambiguity many residents of the parish feel when forced to weigh potential settlements that could fund coastal restoration against the jobs provided by the oil and gas industry.
"My goal is coastal restoration through dredging," Cormier said. "The lawsuits would be another potential source of revenue for dredging."
Marc Ehrhardt, executive director of the Grow Louisiana Coalition, an advocacy group for the oil and gas industry, said he is in favor of withdrawing from the lawsuit. Doing so, he said, would help bring more energy-industry jobs back to the parish.
Still, John Carmouche, the attorney whose firm has taken the lead on the Plaquemines Parish lawsuits, said the resolution's timing is suspect. The parties are due in federal court on Oct. 17 for a hearing, he said.
"It really stinks," he said, adding that he believes opponents of the suit are putting pressure on council members to suspend the legal action. "It's really disturbing for Louisiana to go back to the way politics have done forever."
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