State Democrats back levee board suits

The Louisiana Democratic Party on Saturday endorsed lawsuits demanding oil and gas companies pay for damages to the state’s marshes that led to coastal wetlands loss and contributed to higher storm surges during hurricanes.

Gov. Bobby Jindal strongly opposes the litigation.

“It’s troubling to me that we have a governor who doesn’t want to see the lawsuits proceed,” said Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish, who pushed the governing committee of the state’s Democratic Party to approve the resolution.

The 210-member Louisiana Democratic State Central Committee passed the resolution on a voice vote with one vote in opposition. The committee was holding its regular meeting to hear updates on the party’s work and consider positions on several policy questions.

The Democrats resolved to back the lawsuits and encourage state and local boards and governments to seek judicial remedies.

The resolution is the position of the Democratic Party, but members and elected officials will not be sanctioned if they take different positions, said Karen Carter Peterson, chair of the state Democratic Party and a state senator from New Orleans.

Several legislators say oil and gas interests have been raising the possibility of a bill that would short-circuit the litigation and make it difficult for governmental entities to file lawsuits without the express approval of the governor. No such bill has been filed for consideration during the legislative session that begins March 10, but the possibility of such a measure was a major part of the conversation about the resolution.

Jim Harlan, who represents part of St. Tammany Parish, said he was concerned the resolution would be used by opponents to paint the Democratic Party as anti-energy. While unfair and incorrect, he said, such a label would hurt Democratic elected officials and candidates in a state whose economy and workforce rely so heavily on the energy industry.

“Does this body, by adopting this resolution, want to make this a partisan issue?” Harlan asked.

Nevertheless, he said, he supports enforcing contractual provisions that require the oil and gas industry to repair the damage it did, as each of the companies had agreed to do.

“It’s a question of responsibility,” he said.

In July 2013, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed a lawsuit in Orleans Civil District Court against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. The litigation seeks damages for the extensive network of canals cut by energy companies through wetlands areas. The canals allowed increasing amounts of saltwater to intrude into the marshes, which weakened the vegetation and resulted in land loss, the suit says.

The authority oversees the massive levees and complex flood control system that protects much of the New Orleans area.

Governments in Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes then filed a set of nearly 30 lawsuits alleging dozens of energy companies and their contractors destroyed and polluted the parishes’ coastal areas.

New Orleans writer John M. Barry, the former vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, addressed the Democrats, saying he hoped for the opportunity to also speak to the state’s Republican Party.

He said the issue is about responsibility and the rule of law. “What the industry is now saying, when it goes to the Legislature and asks them to kill the lawsuits, what they’re saying is, ‘We’re above the law,’ ” Barry said.

Barry is best known for his 1997 book “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” which he autographed for some of the committee members who brought their copies from home. Barry also is the most prominent public face supporting the litigation.

His nomination for another term on the authority was rejected during a nominating meeting that focused heavily on the lawsuit and Jindal’s vow not to appoint supporters of the litigation.

“If this lawsuit survives the legislative session, I don’t believe it’ll ever go to trial,” Barry said. Though he has not spoken directly to energy company executives, he said, he has reason to believe that oil and gas companies would settle the litigation.