James Gill: Graves shows why lawsuit is needed

Garret Graves, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s point man on coastal restoration, makes a compelling case.

He should by now have convinced all doubters that the state ought to sue the oil and gas companies that have spent about a century ravaging our wetlands.

That wasn’t Graves’ intention and it won’t happen. But put together all his public pronouncements, and that’s where logic leads.

Graves and Jindal actually want the companies to go scot-free, leaving you and me to pick up a tab that is bound to run into the billions. That’s why they are in the process of scuttling a suit filed by the New Orleans-area levee board seeking damages for the havoc caused by the canals and pipelines that criss-cross Louisiana’s rapidly disappearing marshes.

The reasons they give for doing so lead ineluctably to the conclusion that the board should indeed abandon its lawsuit, but only so the state can seek redress on an even larger scale.

Nobody doubts that oil and gas companies have played a major role in the wetlands destruction that has given storm surge an ever clearer shot at the New Orleans region. Graves himself has said, “I will be the first to admit there’s liability there,” and styles himself “no apologist for the oil and gas industry.” Well, he might as well be.

The levee board, in filing its suit, allegedly usurped the authority of the Jindal Administration and its Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which Graves chairs. It is acting independently when the levee boards that were set up after Hurricane Katrina to replace the political fiefdoms of yore should be coordinating their efforts. The suit, against almost 100 oil and gas companies, is undermining the state’s master plan, wherein the salvation of the wetlands lies, according to Graves.

It is by no means clear how litigation designed to secure huge sums for coastal restoration and levee construction could thwart underfunded plans for coastal restoration and levee construction. John Barry, vice president of the maverick levee board and the leading proponent of the suit has said in any case that the proceeds would be spent in accordance with the plan.

But all these objections would melt away if the state took up the cause of seeking just redress for the environmental havoc caused by oil and gas. Since “there’s liability there,” doing nothing is a betrayal of the taxpayer.

So what else is new? Oil and gas executives must have spent many hours congratulating themselves on how easy it is to take Louisiana for a ride and having a good laugh at our expense. They will have many more opportunities to do so once Jindal has made sure the levee board lawsuit is junked and perpetuated the myth that they are our benefactors because we need their jobs and their taxes.

They need our oil and gas even more, as their fabulous profits attest. Those profits would have been much reduced had they not been allowed to renege on their legal obligation to backfill obsolete canals and otherwise repair the damage they have done to the wetlands. It has evidently proven cheaper to buy politicians.

When the current levee boards were established, supposedly independent committees were set up to provide two nominees for each vacant seat. But the governor then makes the call, so taking politics out of flood control always was something of a pipe dream. Now that Barry and the president of the Levee Board, Tim Doody, are up for reappointment, Graves has made it clear they are goners because they pushed the lawsuit that Jindal wants dropped.

Since the board’s vote to sue was unanimous, it may be the remaining members will stick to their guns. Besides, if the committee is in a puckish mood, it could only nominate replacements for Barry and Doody who support the litigation.

But it is not in the nature of committees to be puckish, and Jindal and his pals in the oil and gas business will win in the end regardless. They will have no trouble passing legislation in the next session to emasculate the levee board.

Although Barry and Doody won’t be around by then, if you want to know why suing oil and gas is still a good idea, you could always ask Graves.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@theadvocate.com.