James Gill: Oil and gas owe Louisiana big time

If there were a rational case against making oil and gas pay for polluting and destroying Louisiana wetlands, we would have heard it by now.

Instead, we have been fed a diet of non sequiturs and lies. That was good enough for the state Senate, which voted last week to kill the Flood Protection Authority lawsuit that seeks redress for spoliation in the coastal zone from 97 companies.

Those companies are not entirely off the hook, even if the House does the industry’s bidding, too, because similar lawsuits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes will evidently be permitted to proceed. But the levee authority was the big dog, and oil and gas has no reason to fear that legislators have forgotten their place.

The industry, and its stooges in Baton Rouge, trot out the same old falsehoods. The flood authority had no legal right to file a suit, which, in any case, was just a stunt for those all-purpose bogeymen — “greedy trial lawyers” — to line their pockets at the expense of an industry that broke no laws and kindly provides jobs for thousands of our citizens.

Because it is impossible to deny that canals and pipelines have played a major role in reducing marshland to open water, industry lapdogs argue that the companies have already made full restitution through the fees and royalties they have paid the state. Moreover, oil and gas companies are not the only culprit; it is unfair to hold them to account.

Whenever debate on a bill features so much tosh, the motive behind it is not as advertised. If there were any truth in the pro-industry line, retroactive legislation squelching the suit would be superfluous. It wouldn’t survive five minutes in court, and those greedy trial lawyers would have been mugs to take the case on contingency.

No, the genesis of this bill was the well-justified fear that, if the case came to court, the oil and gas companies would be stuck with a bill in the billions. Indeed, it will probably never come to court, because the companies are so obviously liable that settlement negotiations will begin immediately if the House does not agree to kill the suit.

The Flood Protection Authority from day one hoped the suit would spur a fair out-of-court deal; only legislators can put the kibosh on that, although the whole idea of our post-Katrina system was to take politics out of it. As a court has confirmed, the authority is empowered to litigate on its own accord.

The lawsuit, which claims southern Louisiana’s natural flood defenses have been ravaged by oil and gas, was not dreamed up by trial lawyers, although the ones hired to handle it certainly stood to make a fortune if they won. Those lawyers, however, have offered to accept negotiated fees, or go to arbitration, if a settlement is reached. Take away the greedy shyster distraction, and the rest of the case against the suit promptly collapses.

Leading the charge against the flood authority in the Senate were Bret Allain, R-Franklin, and Robert Adley, R-Benton, neither of whom can doubt that oil and gas companies sometimes make an unholy mess. Allain sued a pipline company over damage to his cane fields and reached a settlement in 2011, while Adley was in the oil business until recently and was once fined for environmental offenses.

But personal experience is not necessary, for many authoritative studies have put the blame for a large percentage of wetland loss on energy exploration. Levee construction has done a lot of harm, too, Allain pointed out, but the Corps of Engineers is immune from litigation and levee boards can hardly sue themselves. Some subsidence is also natural, and suing God is not an option either. Only oil and gas has a huge and obvious liability that makes litigation worthwhile.

Adley is forever saying it is unfair to sue companies who operated under state regulation and did no wrong. He cannot possibly believe that. The companies were contractually obliged to repair the damage they caused but routinely failed to lift a finger. Internal oil and gas company memoranda, obtained by the Flood Authority lawyers, show that executives knew full well they were the bandits of the wetlands.

The royalties they paid were for the right to extract the oil and gas that made them a fortune and that’s all. The companies had permits to drill, not to leave devastation and waste behind them. Oil and gas owes Louisiana big time, if the truth be told.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.