Jindal administration could move against oil, gas lawsuit this week (Video)

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Author, historian, activist and Levee Board Chairman John Barry speaks about the levee board suit at the Baton Rouge Press Club in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Author, historian, activist and Levee Board Chairman John Barry speaks about the levee board suit at the Baton Rouge Press Club in Baton Rouge.

The governor’s coastal adviser, Garret Graves, said Monday that a state entity could decide this week to legally intervene in a controversial lawsuit against the oil and gas industry.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority meets Wednesday in Dulac at the southern tip of Terrebonne Parish. The meeting is expected to focus on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies for damage to Louisiana’s wetlands.

The lawsuit has drawn fire from some of the state’s political leaders, even though it drew support from Russel L. HonorĂ©, a retired Army lieutenant general who helped navigate the chaos of Hurricane Katrina. HonorĂ© recently urged for the flood authority to be given its day in court.

Gov. Bobby Jindal wants the authority to drop the lawsuit. Presidents of 22 levee boards denounced the legal action as a threat to the state’s existing coastal restoration plan and a possible strain on relationships with the energy industry. Legislators also leveled criticism during a recent hearing at the State Capitol about the litigation.

Graves, who chairs the CPRA, said one of two things could happen at Wednesday’s meeting. The CPRA could agree to establish a dialogue with the flood authority or vote to legally intervene in an attempt to get the lawsuit dismissed.

The CPRA counts many of the governor’s Cabinet secretaries among its members and concentrates on comprehensive coastal protection.

“The governor (and) the Legislature have a much broader perspective,” Graves said, referring to the implications of the lawsuit.

The meeting starts at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Grand Caillou Recreation Center in Dulac.

If the CPRA fails to come to an agreement on how to deal with the lawsuit, yet another option is available. Legislators could pass a bill next year to retroactively halt the lawsuit as they did when the city of New Orleans sued gun manufacturers.

The flood authority’s vice president, John Barry, told the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday that his hope is the governor changes his mind and backs his organization’s efforts.

Barry summed up opposition to the lawsuit against the oil and gas industry with one word: Politics.

“People used to say the flag of Texaco flies over the State Capitol. People have to ask themselves if that’s still true,” he said during a lunchtime gathering.

Barry’s appearance at the press club, which meets in downtown Baton Rouge, drew a large crowd. The chairs quickly filled, forcing some to perch on wooden window seats overlooking an alley.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East encompasses the East Jefferson, Orleans and Lake Borgne Basin levee districts.

A possible short-term stall in the dispute emerged late last week when the authority suggested it could temporarily suspend the case if the Jindal administration produced an alternative plan that holds the oil and gas companies accountable for the coastal damage.

Barry said that a suspension would amount to a pause in some of the substantive points.

Graves said the flood authority is not going to dictate policy to the state.

The case is expected to take years to litigate because of its complexity.

Basically, the authority alleges the oil and gas industry caused devastating damage to the state’s wetlands by dredging canals and building pipelines and wells. The state has lost 1,900 square miles to coastal erosion in the past century, breaking down a natural buffer to storm surges and putting coastal residents more at risk to hurricanes.

Barry said Jindal could transform himself from a good governor into a great governor by sitting everyone down and resolving the problem of who is going to pay for restoring the coast.

Among the arguments against the lawsuit is that the East Bank authority lacks the standing to sue the oil and gas industry for damage to the state’s coastline.

“We’ve gotten criticism from public figures, but a lot of support from the public,” Barry said. He said the authority simply wants the oil and gas industry to fix what it broke.

The industry’s solution to the problem, he said, is for taxpayers to repair the damage, possibly through higher flood insurance rates.

As for whether the authority had the standing to sue, Barry said he welcomes a challenge on those grounds.