James Gill: Big shot steps in on behalf of oil and gas

Jay Lapeyre was too modest to mention it, but he is quite the big shot, chairman of the board at a publicly traded company in Houston.

The company, ION Geophysical Group, describes itself as a “global oil and gas industry supplier.”

If you find yourself in a roomful of ION’s customers, do not mention the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East, or you will get an earful. Avoid, especially, the name of John Barry, prime mover behind the Authority’s lawsuit blaming 97 oil and gas companies for screwing up our wetlands.

Those present in the room will at least be pleased that Barry has now been kicked off the authority. They will no doubt raise a glass to the man who orchestrated his ouster. “Here’s to Jay,” they will say. “What a pal!”

Lapeyre is not just a big shot in Texas. He is most active in his home state of Louisiana where, for instance, he chairs the committee that nominates candidates for seats on the Flood Authority. The committee gives Gov. Bobby Jindal two to choose from when a member’s term expires, which Barry’s has.

Barry was a certainty for reappointment until Jindal lost his rag over the lawsuit. None of the official reasons for the administration’s dudgeon make any sense, but the oil and gas industry has never lacked friends in high places. At Lapeyre’s urging, four members of the committee joined him in voting against Barry. That produced a 5-5 vote, and Barry was a goner.

“Whew,” the roomful of ION customers would exclaim, “that was a close one! Where would we be without Jay?”

Various civic and educational institutions are represented on the nominating committee, where Lapeyre’s sponsor is the Campaign for a Better Louisiana. Not that much better, though. A blatant conflict of interest is evidently still jake.

Still, even had Lapeyre taken the ethical course and recused himself, Barry’s goose was cooked. The administration had made it clear that, if his name were submitted, the other nominee would get the seat. The lawsuit was the “litmus test.” Candidates who were for it were not wanted, Jindal’s wetlands czar Garret Graves has repeatedly said.

That would seem to rule out any reappointments, since the authority’s vote to sue was unanimous. Its chairman, Tim Doody, far and away Barry’s most conspicuous ally in defending the suit, remains in the running but only because the nominating committee had no choice. Only one other candidate, retired St. Bernard Judge David Gorbaty, sought the seat and he will inevitably get the nod from Jindal.

The new men on the authority will still be outnumbered by original supporters of the suit, who will now be pressured to change their minds. The administration threatens to punish any recalcitrance by sponsoring legislation to derail the suit or reduce the authority’s autonomy.

Barry is not so sure Jindal can kill the lawsuit, noting that no legislators oppose flood control, which could be vastly improved with the proceeds. But legislators have been sucking up to oil and gas companies ever since they started ravaging the wetlands about 100 years ago. “Apres moi, le deluge” has been the watchword as the natural storm surge barriers slipped away, and now Jindal is determined that the restoration costs will be borne by the taxpayer.

The unfairness is obvious, and even Graves concedes “there’s liability there,” but the administration alleges the suit will somehow interfere with its $50 billion coastal restoration master plan. The state may have a plan, but it hasn’t got $50 billion. Since the oil and gas companies could be held responsible for quite a few billion, it might make more sense for the state and the authority to cooperate.

That wasn’t the idea when the flood protection authorities were established after Katrina. ndeed, the whole point was that they would remain at arm’s length from the politicians while their members would have to possess a technical expertise undreamed off by the good ole boy levee boards of yore.

Clearly the pretense of an apolitical set-up has now been abandoned. Lapeyre, in urging Barry’s replacement, gave no reason other than the governor’s snit. He certainly saw no reason to bring ION’s customers into it. He did not respond to a request for comment.

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