When members of a nominating committee meet next week to consider applicants for seats on a New Orleans-area levee authority, they will hold the future of a controversial coastal-erosion lawsuit against scores of oil and gas companies in their hands.
The suit, filed last year by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, has already been the subject of numerous attacks by elected officials, and the Legislature this year passed a law intended to kill the case.
Those efforts have not yet succeeded or are awaiting a ruling by the courts, but the upcoming nominations could add one more anti-lawsuit commissioner backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal to the authority, giving critics of the suit a majority on the board and the ability to simply vote to drop it.
But much will depend on how, exactly, the board handles the three candidates for the two seats that are available.
Commissioner Paul Kemp, who supports the suit, and Jeff Angers, who opposes it, are both up for reappointment after their terms expired at the beginning of June. Both have applied for another term on the east bank authority.
So has Mark Morgan, who served for five years on the comparable West Bank authority and who was its representative to the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, and who said he was encouraged to apply by officials who have been hostile to the suit.
The complex nature of the nominating process means that all three names could be sent to Jindal. But whether the suit continues will likely depend on which names are put forward for which seat. Kemp, who has served on the board since 2011, currently fills a seat reserved for a scientist or engineer. Both Kemp and Morgan, a civil engineer who is president of the environmental consulting and engineering company SEMS Inc., qualify for that seat. But either man could also be nominated instead to fill the non-technical position to which Angers was appointed last fall in an attempt by Jindal to put commissioners on the board who would oppose the suit.
Because Kemp’s seat is reserved for a technical expert, Jindal is required to appoint the person the committee nominates for it. But the committee must give Jindal the choice of two people for the other seat.
That means the committee could force Jindal to reappoint Kemp, maintaining a slim 5-4 majority on the board in favor of the lawsuit, or nominate Morgan for that seat and essentially give Jindal a clear path to gain a majority on the board.
Or, potentially, the board could delay a decision to seek more candidates.
Morgan said Wednesday that while he “didn’t really want” to serve on the board because of the time and work involved, he felt compelled to submit his name after being asked to do so by officials including Jindal’s former coastal protection chief Garret Graves, who is now running for Congress in the 6th District. While serving in state government, Graves was one of the leading opponents of the suit.
Jay Lapeyre, the chairman of the nominating committee, said Wednesday that he was among the people who encouraged Morgan to put his name in for the position, and he said he has encouraged anyone qualified to do so. Finding qualified candidates for the authority has been difficult in the past.
“I encouraged, as I always do, everyone with ability and competence to run,” Lapeyre said.
If he is appointed, Morgan is expected to be a fifth vote against the lawsuit.
Jindal has already replaced four commissioners who supported the suit when it was filed last summer, including then-President Tim Doody and Vice President John Barry, two of the most visible proponents of the case.
The suit argues that decades of environmental damage by oil and gas companies in southeast Louisiana has destroyed and eroded coastal marshes, removing an important buffer zone and making the New Orleans area more vulnerable to devastating storm surge during hurricanes.
Although Morgan said he would keep an open mind about the suit, he said the state has benefited greatly from oil and gas production, and he noted that the Orleans Levee District, a part of the Flood Protection Authority, has received money from oil leases on property it owns.
He also said the lawsuit is a distraction from the authority’s main purpose, comparing it to ventures such as Lakefront Airport that the old Orleans Levee Board pursued and that the new authority was established to curb.
“The primary focus should be on flood protection,” he said.
He also noted in his application that he has served on boards and commissions that have been in conflict with the Flood Protection Authority in the past, which could allow him to see the other side of issues.
Morgan’s nomination, however, could be problematic. On his application, he said his company is working with the West Bank authority to upgrade its tank system and do testing. State law prohibits anyone who has a contract with either authority from being appointed as a commissioner, and there are restrictions on those who represent companies doing business with the authorities.
Morgan said Wednesday he believes his company’s work for the other authority is complete, and “if I’m selected obviously there may not be a possibility to do more of that” work.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.