Stephanie Grace: History shows industry got a free ride

by stephanie grace

It wasn’t a huge story at the time, but about seven years ago, something unusual happened, at least for Louisiana.

Asked to OK locally based McMoRan Exploration Co.’s plan to build a $1 billion open-loop liquified natural gas port off the coast, a project that environmentalists feared might harm the state’s fisheries, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco said no.

Even as a self-proclaimed “oil and gas governor,” Blanco said, she had an obligation to protect the ecosystem. Within a day, McMoran shifted gears and offered to instead build a closed-loop system using a more expensive but more fish-friendly technology.

The incident stood out because it suggested that the state and local governments can pretty easily make certain environmental demands of the industry, without fear of being labeled unfriendly to business. It also stood out because it was so rare to see anyone in power actually use that leverage.

Which brings me to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s explosive lawsuit against 100 major oil and gas industry players, seeking compensation for years of activity that has destroyed vast swaths of the wetlands that once provided a buffer against hurricanes.

There’s already considerable debate over whether the suit is proper and wise. What should be beyond debate, though, is that local and state government agencies can take a tougher line with the interests that have caused so much devastation — and should.

Yet embracing that theory would require a significant political and cultural shift in a state long marked by remarkable coziness with oil and gas interests, where the industry has to date gotten away with destroying anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of the wetlands in question, through dredging and other activities, with no repercussions.

The suit tries to accomplish this, in part by naming names. Literally. The list of defendants takes up an entire single-spaced page of the complaint, and includes politically powerful players such as BP, Chevron, McMoRan, Koch Industries and many, many more.

These firms have done business here for years, pretty much on their own terms, with the cooperation and even enthusiasm of a political establishment that crosses party lines.

The most-cynical critics accuse politicians of being all too willing to protect the powerful interests that fund political campaigns, and there’s surely truth to that. Politicians and their defenders generally say they’re protecting jobs and guarding the local economy, and there’s truth to that, too. The motive almost doesn’t matter because the effect is the same: A political structure overly chummy with oil and gas interests.

We saw just how ingrained the industry is after the catastrophic 2010 BP spill, which changed few overall attitudes and prompted astonishingly little soul-searching, particularly about how government could more stringently regulate exploration and prevent such tragedies from happening again. Almost all the official energy seemed to go into fighting new regulations.

That was certainly the case with Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has called on the levee authority to withdraw its suit, in part by raising the specter of a trial lawyer windfall, although he also offered additional unrelated reasons.

Chris John, the former Democratic congressman who heads the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, responded to the suit in typical fashion. It’s unfair to single out the industry when its actions have only been encouraged by state and federal governments, he said, and doing so could scare companies away from doing business with Louisiana.

But here are a few questions for those who worry about going after the companies: Where else would they go? What other state offers such abundant resources and hospitality? Is it really unreasonable to expect companies that are profiting so handsomely to clean up their messes, or help pay someone else to?

John Barry, the levee authority’s vice president, doesn’t think so. Invoking the state’s successful action against big tobacco companies in the 1990s, Barry said authority officials were basically looking for a way to finally exercise the government’s leverage.

“I always thought there should be a way to get at this,” Barry said, “and always thought about the tobacco lawsuits.”

Whether or not the legal route is the best way to go, Barry’s got one thing right. The industry spent decades butchering Louisiana’s wetlands. There really should be a way to hold it accountable.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.