Political Horizons: Honoré wants public involved on environment

A glaring of lobbyists, a handful of legislators and a couple of reporters gathered to gossip in the halls of the State Capitol late Wednesday night. They were taking a break after hours of public testimony that relentlessly opposed a legislative effort to revamp East Baton Rouge Parish schools.

Had the House committee voted at the start of the evening, House Bill 1177 would have advanced on a 10-8 tally. But the parade of regular people — called civilians by the folks who hang around the Capitol — persuaded a few legislators to change their votes.

“Democracy in action, (you) don’t see that much at this place,” one of the gaggle said. Everyone laughed.

The night before, many of the same lobbyists, legislators and reporters stalked Senate galleries during debate about a bill that would kill a lawsuit aimed at holding oil and gas interests at least partially responsible for the erosion of Louisiana’s rapidly fading coastal marshes. Senate Bill 553 would reach back in time and impose a new process, which the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East didn’t follow, and therefore would negate the lawsuit that levee board filed in July.

The vote favored oil and gas companies, as expected. The trade groups representing the business community were thrilled. But not everyone is OK with changing the rules to favor one side after the game starts. Moments later, Russel Honoré, the U.S. Army general who restored order in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, posted on his Facebook page that Gov. Bobby Jindal distributed checks to buy votes, “all in name to get big oil money so he can run for White House. Sad face.”

Jindal’s aides usually belittle anyone who raises even the mildest question about the governor’s positions. But this is the “Hero of New Orleans,” the no-nonsense soldier over whom politicians fawn. Jindal’s aides remained quiet, confining their attacks to reporters who asked the governor for a response.

“I was being metaphorical,” Honoré said Wednesday.

“When you call the boys up before a big vote, they get something. … They get a bill they want done. They get a bridge. They get something. This thing has the governor’s hand all over.”

Honoré and the flood authority argue, generally, that the energy industry cut canals through marshes in pursuit of oil and natural gas. In the permits, the 97 companies sued agreed to repair the damage, but they didn’t, which allowed salt water to intrude and kill off vegetation needed to slow hurricane storm surges, the lawsuit says.

The oil and gas industry counters, and Jindal agrees, that back in the day they cleaned up their messes to the level required by the state.

It’s unfair to now hold them accountable for actions that state officials once approved.

“That’s why the courts need to get involved,” Honoré said. A judge and jury can sort out the information, see how the evidence fits a given situation and come up with a fair solution.

“Look, the reason we have so many lawsuits in this state is because we don’t have enough laws. When you break someone’s stuff … you should be held responsible. But they can say, ‘No, no, I don’t have to pay for it because it’s permitted under state law.’ ”

Having a strong regulatory system would set the boundaries in advance. Corporations invest in stable environments where they know the rules going in and know the rules won’t change down the road, Honoré said.

Honoré says he became an environmentalist while flying into New Orleans after Katrina and mistook abandoned oilfield equipment as hurricane damage.

He was corrected by the helicopter pilot who said that was part of the everyday scenery.

Now retired, Honoré is lending his celebrity to the Green Army, a loose coalition of environmental groups that have banded together in hopes of energizing people to stand up against the seemingly unbeatable force of big oil, their lobbyists and the legislators who support them.

“The people are going to have to act. This will not change unless the people tell them to change it,” Honoré said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.