Oil and gas association want Caldwell to reverse lawsuit approval

A major energy industry association has demanded state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell withdraw his approval of an agreement between a New Orleans-area levee board and lawyers who have filed a lawsuit accusing about 100 oil and gas companies of destroying coastal wetlands.

The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, which counts most of the defendants among its members, delivered a letter to Caldwell last week claiming he does not have the authority to authorize that agreement and only his office can represent the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East.

If the office does not withdraw its authorization, the association plans to file suit against Caldwell, according to the letter.

Association President Don Briggs said the letter was sent because the association believes the attorney general erred in approving the suit.

“We feel that what he did was wrong and we don’t believe he had all the information he was supposed to have,” Briggs said.

At issue is a fairly technical conflict over which section of state law governs who can represent the levee board and under what circumstances it can file a lawsuit. It also echoes previous clashes between the board and officials in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, who have cited other state laws in claiming the levee board needed the governor’s approval before hiring an outside firm.

Steven Hartmann, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office could not comment on the association’s petition.

“We are in receipt of the demand letter and the unsigned, draft petition, and our attorneys are currently reviewing the matter,” Hartmann said in an emailed statement. “We have no further comment.”

Levee board Vice President John Barry, who has served as a spokesman for the lawsuit, said his organization complied with the law and dismissed the claims of the oil and gas association, which is sometimes known by the acronym LOGA.

“Much of LOGA’s planned response to this lawsuit is nothing less than an attack on the competence and judgment of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell,” Barry said in an email.

The flood protection authority has seen pushback from the administration, the legislature and representatives of the oil and gas industry since it filed the suit in July.

The suit alleges that dredging and pipeline construction by energy companies in coastal wetlands sped up the erosion of the state’s coastline.

That, in turn, has removed a natural buffer that would reduce storm surge and increased the costs the levee board must bear by requiring larger and more complex flood protection systems to protect parts of Orleans and Jefferson parishes and St. Bernard Parish.

Should the suit succeed, energy companies could be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. That money would go toward funding the state’s Coastal Master Plan or helping compensate the cash-strapped board for the cost of maintaining the flood protection system in the New Orleans area.

Prior to filing the suit, the levee board sought the attorney general’s approval for its contract with Jones, Swanson, Huddell and Garrison, the New Orleans law firm representing it in the case. That authorization was granted before the suit was filed.

Spokesmen for the Attorney General’s Office have previously said the office is required to review contracts to make sure the attorneys are licensed to practice law and to ensure the fees to be paid are reasonable. But the office doesn’t evaluate the contents of the case itself.

In this dispute, each of the sides is citing different laws governing the hiring of private attorneys by government agencies.

The oil and gas association’s letter argues the board can only be represented by the Attorney General’s Office or special counsel hired by that office.

The law cited by the oil and gas association states the Attorney General’s Office shall be the flood protection authority’s counsel and is “charged with the responsibility of representing each authority in any and all matters when called upon to do so.”

The board has been represented by outside counsel in the past and another private attorney, Bob Lacour, serves as its general counsel.

The Jindal administration, which has claimed the lawsuit exceeds the levee board’s authority and will interfere with other coastal restoration efforts, also has objected to the levee board’s arrangement, claiming that the governor would have to sign off on any agreements to hire outside counsel.

In doing so, administration officials have cited a state law that requires state boards and commissions to get the approval of both the Attorney General’s Office and the governor.

However, members of the flood protection authority, which is sometimes known as SLFPA-E, and their attorneys have countered by pointing to a different law governing levee boards specifically. That law requires only the approval of the Attorney General’s Office.

“The SLFPA-E is confident it has complied with every aspect of Louisiana law at each step in this process,” Barry said in his letter.

“Numerous other contracts relating to other litigation have followed the same process.”