Backers of coastal-erosion lawsuit launch new website

Proponents of a lawsuit targeting oil and gas companies for allegedly causing coastal erosion opened a new front in the political battle over that suit’s future Thursday, unveiling a website aimed at bolstering their claims that the energy industry has knowingly destroyed wetlands and evaded regulations over more than eight decades of doing business in Louisiana.

The website’s collection of laws, prior actions against the energy industry and internal documents and reports from oil and gas companies and associations represents an attempt to convince the public that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East lawsuit is not only justified but perhaps necessary to hold the companies to account.

“The truth is that the position the industry has articulated is false,” author and lawsuit backer John Barry said. “They say they complied with the law. These documents prove they did not.”

The website, http://jones line/, includes a timeline of documents dating back to the 1930s that supposedly support the authority’s case for the suit. It comes as lawmakers in Baton Rouge are considering various bills that could scuttle the suit.

The oil companies’ documents largely came from previous environmental lawsuits, and lawyers handling the authority’s suit said they had not specifically identified which ones involve activity in the areas of southeast Louisiana covered by the suit.

Though some of the documents included on the site are specifically related to the suit, the timeline is aimed less at making a legal case than at winning in the court of public opinion.

The oldest document on the site is a 1931 report for Shell indicating that its activities near White Castle were discharging salt water into nearby areas, something the report acknowledged was illegal.

A series of similar internal documents follow: engineers’ reports from the 1970s stating that well-casing regulations weren’t being adhered to; another Shell report from 1980 stating that salt water and oil had been drained into wetlands in “flagrant violation of the law”; and other reports warning that regulatory action or lawsuits would follow if procedures were not changed.

Rock Palermo, one of the attorneys working on the authority’s case, said the documents show that oil companies have a history of ignoring the regulations and permits that allowed them to drill in Louisiana.

“In the end game they got the oil out, did their exploration and didn’t finish what they agreed to do,” Palermo said.

The flood protection authority’s suit accuses 97 oil and gas companies of destroying wetlands and exacerbating coastal erosion through drilling, dredging and other exploration activities in coastal Louisiana.

The suit, which has been strongly criticized by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and some legislators, says the companies should have to repair that damage or else pay the levee authority for the cost of the larger, more expensive flood protection system now required because of the loss of marshes that would otherwise serve as a buffer against storm surges.

The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, an aggressive opponent of the authority’s suit, attacked the website as a stunt and called the suit itself “extortion.”

“The oil and gas industry’s No. 1 priority is safety, personal and environmental, and we remain committed to the communities in which we operate,” according to a news release from the organization. “We stand behind the fact that these coastal suits are about one thing and one thing only: money.”

The oil and gas industry has launched its own public relations effort. Dubbed “Give ’em the Boot,” the campaign has been holding meetings across south Louisiana to argue that lawsuits against energy companies will cause the companies to leave the state.

Barry said the site is not intended to paint all oil companies as scofflaws.

“I’m sure there were many good companies that did comply with the laws during this period, but others did not,” he said.

Barry served as vice president of the flood protection authority — and chief cheerleader for the coastal erosion suit — until the fall, when a nominating committee did not recommend him for another term on the board. That came amid a push by the Jindal administration to replace board members who supported the suit with new ones who oppose it.

Since then Barry has headed a nonprofit, Restore Louisiana Now, formed last year to support the suit.

Several bills targeting the lawsuit are up for debate this legislative session, including a measure by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, that would give the governor more control over who sits on the levee authority.

Other bills are aimed at invalidating the authority’s contract with its attorneys or changing the rules governing suits against oil and gas companies, including suits that Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes filed last year.

Barry said he remains optimistic that many of those attacks can be defeated, in part by showing lawmakers documents like those on the website, which he said have changed the minds of some lawmakers initially inclined to support the energy industry.