Mayor Landrieu: Up to Jindal to hold energy companies accountable for wetlands damage

Landrieu weighs in on wetlands issue playing out at Capitol

“The bigger issue here for the state is that the governor, whoever he or she may be at any point in time, has the power to institute a lawsuit if he or she should choose to do so and has the power through huge executive leverage — permits, lots of things — to get the oil and gas industry, who have in many ways been very good to the state and provided thousands and thousands of jobs and huge income, to recognize that you can’t keep digging if you don’t fill the hole back up.” mitch landrieu, New Orleans mayor

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu this week slammed Gov. Bobby Jindal for failing to hold oil and gas companies accountable for damage to the state’s wetlands, arguing that the state should bring energy companies to the table to pay for coastal restoration or else sue to recover the money needed for that effort.

Because recent debates over the accountability of oil and gas companies have centered around suits filed by a New Orleans-area levee authority and by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes, Landrieu said, they have focused more on questions of jurisdiction than on the real issue at stake: how to get the industry to pay for the destruction it caused.

He said he has not decided whether New Orleans should file its own lawsuit.

“The argument in the Legislature this session about whether or not a political subdivision of the state should have the authority to sue rather than the executive is really just a red herring,” Landrieu said. “It doesn’t even get to the central question. The central question is: Did the oil and gas industry contribute to the deterioration of the coast? That’s not an unclear answer.

“The answer is: Absolutely, it did. The principle is: If you broke it, you should fix it. That is clear,” Landrieu said.

Landrieu’s comments, which came in response to questions from reporters during an interview Thursday, are the first time the mayor has weighed in publicly on the lawsuits or their underlying arguments.

With the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s suit now apparently barred retroactively by a new law, Landrieu said it’s up to the governor to get oil and gas companies to pay for the damage they caused.

“The bigger issue here for the state is that the governor, whoever he or she may be at any point in time, has the power to institute a lawsuit if he or she should choose to do so and has the power through huge executive leverage — permits, lots of things — to get the oil and gas industry, who have in many ways been very good to the state and provided thousands and thousands of jobs and huge income, to recognize that you can’t keep digging if you don’t fill the hole back up,” said Landrieu, who has been mentioned often as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2015.

Jindal’s chief coastal official pushed back Friday against the idea the state is not doing enough on the issue or has ignored the role of the energy industry in wetlands damage.

“No one denies there is a responsibility and obligation on the part of oil and gas in regard to the effects of oil and gas activity,” Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Jerome Zeringue said.

He said bringing oil and gas companies to the table always has been a part of the administration’s strategy and had been discussed before the Flood Protection Authority filed its suit last summer. But, he said, given the “magnitude and significance” of the issue, it will take some time to develop that strategy.

“If we could try to do it amicably, it would be in all the parties’ best interest,” Zeringue said. “If we could have a full, intelligent discussion about what those responsibilities are in a productive manner, it would be in everybody’s best interest.”

The timing of the Flood Protection Authority’s suit, which came in the middle of ongoing lawsuits against BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, also complicated the matter, he said.

Zeringue said the federal government also bears a significant portion of the responsibility for coastal damages. Federal levees on the Mississippi River, which prevent flooding but also keep sediment from replenishing coastal areas, have long been blamed as a major cause of coastal erosion.

The two sets of lawsuits take different approaches to holding oil and gas companies accountable for wetlands damage.

The suits by Jefferson and Plaquemines seek to make companies repair specific damage to specific sites.

The Flood Protection Authority’s suit takes a wider view and names 97 oil and gas companies that it alleges are responsible for significant damage throughout the New Orleans region. It says the damage led to significant loss of the wetlands that had provided a buffer against storm surge, thereby leaving the area more vulnerable.

Jindal signed legislation last week that would block the Flood Protection Authority’s suit while leaving the parish suits in place. However, some legal experts have said the new law is so broadly worded that it could be used to scuttle the suits against BP, and attorneys representing the authority have said they believe they can continue their case despite the new law.

Landrieu did not directly take a position on the Flood Protection Authority’s suit, though he mentioned that seeking a settlement with oil and gas companies could save some of the money that would go toward paying the attorneys pursuing the suit. The size of those likely payments has been a major argument by the Jindal administration against the suit. It also contended the Flood Protection Authority did not have the authority to file the suit.

Landrieu said he is still weighing his options with regard to joining Jefferson and Plaquemines in their suits.

“I’m looking to my governor to lead this effort. Now that he’s demanded to have the only authority to do it, I think he should exercise the authority, he should do something significant about it and protect the long-term interests of the state,” Landrieu said. “But if he doesn’t do it, and it falls to the parish presidents to do it, then we’ll make the proper decision at that time.”

A suit by New Orleans would likely not have the impact of the cases filed by its close neighbors because there are relatively few sites within the city’s boundaries that were used for oil and gas activities. Jefferson and Plaquemines, by contrast, have a significant number of areas damaged by a variety of uses related to oil and gas extraction.

St. Bernard Parish President Dave Peralta, whose parish has a number of oil and gas sites, said Friday he’s waiting to see the outcome of the other parishes’ cases before deciding whether to commit to a similar suit.

“I don’t think there’s any rush on this thing” and he’s “not going to move forward until there’s some clear avenues ahead,” Peralta said, adding that “there’s no reason that, if they were successful, we wouldn’t piggyback on their suit.”

Cameron Parish also is considering a suit for coastal damages, and the lawyers pursuing the various parish cases continue to talk to other coastal parishes about filing similar suits.

If nothing is done to hold oil and gas companies accountable, it will fall to the general public to clean up their damages, Landrieu said.

“And so the question for the public is: Do you want to pay for it? Or do you think (the companies) ought to pay for it, too?” Landrieu said. “I think the public should say they ought to pay for it, too.”

Gordon Russell contributed to this story. Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.