Environmental groups criticize Jindal oil donations

They say it’s influencing stance on lawsuit

“We’re saying he should not be meddling in this lawsuit because of what he owes to oil and gas.” Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade executive director

A coalition of environmental groups accused Gov. Bobby Jindal on Wednesday of attempting to quash a coastal erosion lawsuit against oil and gas companies in order to benefit his political contributors.

Jindal has racked up more than $1 million in donations from oil and gas companies and their executives over the past 10 years, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports from organizations including Levees.org, the Sierra Club, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, League of Women Voters and Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans.

The accusation comes as the Jindal administration has been ramping up political pressure on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority —East in an effort to get the levee board to drop its lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies.

That lawsuit alleges the companies destroyed coastal wetlands by dredging canals and laying pipelines in the marshes, allowing saltwater intrusion that killed off vegetation and eroded the coast.

That erosion has made the New Orleans area more vulnerable to hurricane storm surges.

The lawsuit seeks to force the companies to restore the wetlands or pay the flood protection authority to compensate it for the increased cost of flood protection in the area.

“We’re saying he should not be meddling in this lawsuit because of what he owes to oil and gas,” said Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade executive director.

With scientific studies showing the industry was at least partially responsible for coastal erosion, something even some industry officials have acknowledged, Rolfes said campaign contributions were the only reason the governor would seek to block the suit.

Asked whether campaign contributions have factored into the governor’s policies, Jindal spokesman Sean Lansing replied, “That’s absurd.”

The Jindal administration has argued the lawsuit would interfere with other coastal restoration efforts that are underway.

The group’s analysis stretches back to Jindal’s first, unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2003. They found more than 230 contributions from energy companies, with an average contribution of about $4,000.

At a news conference announcing those numbers, a supporter of the lawsuit, wearing a suit covered in stickers with oil company logos, brought out a marionette representing Jindal.

That, members of the group said, was meant to show who was pulling the strings at the Governor’s Mansion.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, a representative of the Sierra Club, said the companies should be on the hook for the damage they caused.

“I want to see Louisiana coastal wetlands restored and oil companies to pay their fair share,” Malek-Wiley said

The group’s estimates likely understate the total number of contributions from those connected to the industry.

Only the companies themselves and some executives were included in the total, which could exclude donations from less-prominent employees or those with a stake in the industry.

The numbers also include only contributions to his campaigns for governor and do not take into account donations given for Jindal’s congressional campaigns. The governor served as a congressman before he was elected governor.

The oil and gas industry, particularly when related service industries are included, are major players in Louisiana political races, said Roy Fletcher, a political consultant who handles primarily Republican candidates.

Fletcher said the energy industry bestows its largess across political lines, including to many Democrats. For example, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco received considerable backing from these companies..

In an emailed statement issued after the group’s news conference, Lansing argued against the lawsuit, reiterating many of the points administration officials have made since it was filed.

Along with saying the lawsuit is a distraction from other restoration work, the Jindal administration has argued it will result in a “windfall” for the lawyers on the case.

Administration officials have suggested if the levee board doesn’t drop the lawsuit, they could replace key members of the board or that future legislation could result in the flood protection authority being overhauled.

Representatives of the levee board have contested Jindal’s assertions, arguing their lawsuit would help fund the state’s Coastal Master Plan and represents the only way to fund hurricane protection in the area and hold oil and gas companies accountable for fixing the wetlands.

Mark Ballard, of the Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.