Jefferson, Plaquemines file coastal erosion lawsuits against oil, gas companies

Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes have filed a set of nearly 30 lawsuits alleging dozens of energy companies and their contractors destroyed and polluted the parishes’ coastal areas, mirroring the philosophy, if not the exact tactics, of a suit a local levee district filed this summer seeking to bring the oil and gas industry to account.

The companies ignored state laws that required coastal land used by oil and gas companies to be maintained properly and eventually restored to its original condition, according to the parish suits, which were filed Friday and Tuesday. The failure to take those actions has been linked to significant coastal erosion in the state, and the suits contend that the company’s actions led to contamination of coastal water and land with toxins.

That damage occurred despite specific requirements in their permits that the companies had to repair whatever harm they inflicted on the coast, according to the suits.

“We know we have the authority, we know the regulations were violated, we know the guidelines were violated,” said John Carmouche, of the Baton Rouge firm Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello, the lead lawyers for the parishes.

The suits, filed in the parish district courts, allege companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and many others ignored state laws governing their activities in coastal areas, failing to restore oilfields that had been destroyed by the pits and canals that are a part of oil and gas extraction, and leaving polluted land and water in their wake. The parishes each filed their own set of lawsuits covering a total of 28 oilfields in their jurisdictions, seven in Jefferson Parish and 21 in Plaquemines.

The case is largely based on a 1978 law that defines companies’ responsibilities in maintaining, closing and restoring sites they worked on. At the time, the law was opposed by oil and gas interests, Carmouche said.

Since then, the energy industry has continued working on projects in coastal areas under a set of regulations governing how the areas must be maintained and requiring they be completely restored when they’re no longer needed. However, enforcement of those regulations has been lax or non-existent, relying largely on self-reporting by the companies doing the work, Carmouche said.

“We’ve taken depositions of prior (state conservation) commissioners going back to the ’70s and ’80s, and they had three investigators to investigate the entire state of Louisiana,” he said.

Among the regulations in that law was the duty to see that sites were “cleared, revegetated, detoxified and otherwise restored as near as practicable to their original condition upon termination of the operations to the maximum extent practicable.”

None of the companies ever filed permits indicating they had restored those fields, the suits say.

“I think the oil companies have an obligation to self-report, I think the oil companies are to blame and I think the oil companies took advantage of the state,” Carmouche said.

Should the parishes’ suits succeed, the oil and gas industry would have to pay to restore that damage or provide compensation for the land destroyed, he said.

Carmouche did not have figures for how much the restoration efforts could cost or the total amount of land involved.

The parishes’ suits are much more narrowly tailored, and potentially simpler, than the massive case brought against oil and gas companies by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East earlier this year. While both cases rest, at least in part, on the alleged failure of energy companies to abide by the terms of their permits, the parishes merely have to prove that point.

The flood protection authority’s suit requires the levee board’s lawyers to prove that oil and gas activity in southeast Louisiana led to erosion that eventually allowed more destructive storm surge to hit the New Orleans area — in turn requiring more complicated and expensive flood protection systems. Proving that chain of causality would be required not just to win the case but also to stave off any challenges to the flood protection authority’s legal right to file the suit in the first place.

The parishes, by contrast, have direct standing under state law to sue simply over a failure to adhere to coastal regulations.

While all of the suits take aim at coastal erosion and other damage allegedly caused by oil and gas companies, the parishes’ suits more closely mirror the so-called “legacy lawsuits” brought by landowners to require energy companies to repair damage done to their properties. Carmouche and his partners have been heavily involved in those suits for the last decade.

The parishes have been considering the lawsuits for about a year, meaning they were in the works for months before the flood protection authority’s suit became public.

While the flood protection authority’s suit drew the immediate ire of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, state officials have so far taken a far softer tone with the parish suits and stressed the differences between the two. Those include distinguishing between suits brought by an appointed board and by elected officials, in this case the Parish Councils, and the more targeted approach in the parish’s case.

The oil and gas industry, however, has been less discriminating and has sought to tie the cases together.

“These suits are more of the same,” Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs said in an email. “Extort as much money from the oil and gas industry as possible, thus lining the pockets of a small group of trial lawyers. Plaquemines and Jefferson Parish are simply following the precedence set by the South Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.”

Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President Chris John said Tuesday he had not yet seen the parishes’ lawsuits but that he opposed a piecemeal approach to coastal restoration efforts, instead pointing to the state’s Coastal Master Plan. That 50-year, $50 billion proposal is intended to restore wetland damage and is largely funded through existing revenue streams, rather than suits against oil and gas companies, though it will receive money from the BP oil spill case.

“I do believe that repairing our coast is a massive undertaking that needs a master plan,” John said. “If you start to piecemeal it, its sure to have adverse affects on the project next door or the project on the other side of the marsh.”

John also suggested his organization could “continue to rally not only the industry but the administration” against all the suits.

But Carmouche said the law is clear and the industry needs to be held accountable.

“These are state regulations that were not followed and need to be enforced, and the parishes, I think, are the proper parties under the regulation to make sure the parishes are restored to their natural state,” he said.