“I think any of the board members that did not previously ‘get a message’ and were not in some isolated African desert, then those folks probably shouldn’t be on the board anyway. I think the message should have been loud and clear to begin with.” GARRET GRAVES, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority chairman
Less than a day after being officially booted from the board of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East, author and historian John Barry said Thursday he plans to continue to fight to hold oil and gas companies accountable for the destruction of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.
He said a new advocacy organization, which has not yet been formed or even named, will deal with a range of environmental issues but will likely focus most of its activities on ensuring that the lawsuit the flood-protection board filed against 97 energy companies is not undone by the Legislature.
Barry spearheaded the suit as vice president of the board until this week.
Thursday’s announcement is the first hint of how Barry, unfettered by restrictions on political involvement that bind commissioners, will continue his involvement in the case.
“I’m now free. I was not free before to get involved in anything political,” Barry said. “Now I’m free. The only restriction on me is I can’t get paid, but I wasn’t paid before.”
The new organization will target energy companies and could address a range of issues dealing with the environmental impact of oil and gas extraction, perhaps including some impacts not directly related to coastal issues.
Campaigning for the lawsuit the levee board filed in July will be one of the first orders of business, Barry said.
“Certainly that would be one of the highest priorities, if not the highest priority,” he said, noting the potential for billions of dollars in damages that could be a game-changer for efforts to restore the state’s wetlands.
The group’s first challenge will be countering what appears to be widespread opposition to the lawsuit among legislators, who will likely consider bills next year that could restructure the flood protection authority or quash the suit.
Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Chairman Garret Graves, who has led Gov. Bobby Jindal’s opposition to the lawsuit, has said such bills are all but certain to win approval, given the opposition to the suit by the administration, industry groups and the other levees boards in the state.
Barry suggested lawmakers might be hesitant to intervene in an ongoing case, even if they opposed it.
Outreach efforts and ensuring lawmakers have a better understanding of the case could convince some legislators to stay on the sidelines, he said, while arguing that public discussions of the issue have already brought some around.
“What would have happened the day after the lawsuit was filed? I think we would have lost,” Barry said. “But when you do a very careful count, I don’t think the numbers are as bad as people thought.”
It’s unclear whether Barry’s assessment will hold up in a state where the oil and gas industry wields significant economic and political power.
The levee board’s suit targets 97 oil and gas companies, accusing them of destroying coastal wetlands through decades of dredging, pipeline construction and other projects.
That damage, according to the suit, has led to significant coastal erosion, which, in turn, has eliminated a natural buffer against storm surge in the New Orleans area, requiring more elaborate flood-protection measures to safeguard the region.
Barry’s announcement came as the levee board held its first meeting with three new commissioners, including Barry’s replacement, installed by Jindal in an attempt to quell the board’s enthusiasm for the suit.
The Jindal administration has been a harsh critic of the case since it was filed in July, arguing it usurps the state’s coastal restoration functions and amounts to a windfall for the lawyers involved in the case.
The Jindal administration announced the appointment of the three new commissioners Wednesday afternoon. Former Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority Chairman Joe Hassinger will replace Barry.
Kelly McHugh, president of a civil engineering firm, will fill the seat left vacant by meteorologist Dave Barnes, and engineer Jeff Angers will replace Ricardo Pineda.
No decision has been made yet about board President Tim Doody, who is also up for reappointment.
Doody has been a supporter of the suit but recused himself from the vote setting it in motion because of potential conflicts with the law firm where he works. The nominating process for the board requires Jindal to choose between Doody and retired St. Bernard Parish Judge David Gorbaty.
Graves said Wednesday all three of the new appointments indicated they oppose the suit, something he had said would be a requirement for all new members.
While the three remain a minority on the nine-member board, they could help persuade their fellow commissioners to drop the suit, Graves said.
“If you have three of the members that can perhaps share a different perspective on the lawsuit, I think it could help to have the other board members think a little different,” Graves said.
Having a board that is not unanimously behind the suit, as it previously was, would allow legislators to “do reform with a scalpel rather than a cannon,” he said.
Asked whether the new appointments were intended to send a message to the remaining commissioners to drop the suit, Graves said, “I think any of the board members that did not previously ‘get a message’ and were not in some isolated African desert, then those folks probably shouldn’t be on the board anyway. I think the message should have been loud and clear to begin with.”
The suit received little public discussion as the levee board met Thursday.
A suggestion by Commissioner Stephen Estopinal, who has been a strong but less visible proponent of the suit, to recognize his former colleagues with a resolution thanking them for their service and a ceremony at a later date was unanimously approved and served as the primary acknowledgement of the turmoil surrounding the board.
In brief farewell remarks, Barry said he hoped a spirit of collegiality among board members would continue, but he repeated his view that the suit was both necessary and supported by the facts and the law.
In his new position, he said later, that will continue to be his message: “The reality is I’m going to be saying exactly the same thing.”