Barry decries efforts to shelve oil lawsuit

One of the key backers of a politically charged lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas firms denounced legislative efforts Monday to derail the legal challenge.

Author John Barry, who last year was removed from a key state levee board, said prefiled bills on the issue should offend people everywhere and play into the view that oil and gas interests are above the law.

“They are really attacks on the citizens of Louisiana,” Barry said of the bills. “The law is the great equalizer.”

Barry, who spoke to the Press Club of Baton Rouge, was ousted from the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East last year.

He was not renamed to the panel by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who made it clear he was unhappy with Barry and other backers of the court challenge.

The lawsuit, filed in July by the authority, contends that energy companies should pay billions of dollars to restore coastal wetlands that the plaintiffs say were destroyed by the firms through exploration and transportation activities.

The lawsuit alleges the loss of those marshes and the erosion that ensued has contributed to higher storm surges that require more expensive flood protection systems to protect the New Orleans area.

The Jindal administration contends the lawsuit usurps Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts and amounts to a windfall for attorneys in the case.

The legislative session starts March 10, with a wide range of bills related directly or indirectly to the lawsuit.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton, has filed a bill that would require the authority to win written permission of the governor and attorney general to hire special attorneys. The measure would also be retroactive, which means it would apply to the lawsuit against the oil and gas companies.

Adley said his and others’ bills are simply a bid to clarify state law and require the authority to do what it should have done initially.

“The damage here is that, if Louisiana lets rogue committees like this file suit against people who didn’t violate the law, you are never going to have any business here, period,” he said.

The proposal is Senate Bill 553.

The issue is sure to trigger heated controversy when legislative debate begins.

At one point, Barry paused after blasting legislative efforts to shelve the legal challenge.

“I get a little wound up when I talk about that,” he said.

Asked about Barry’s comments, Adley said, “I sometimes wonder if this gentleman understands what he is saying.”

Barry said that, if the lawsuit is allowed to go forward, he thinks an agreement will be worked out between the industry and its critics.

“There are some people in the industry who recognize their liability,” he said.

But those officials, he said, are unlikely to step forward while the Legislature debates bills that would nullify the legal challenge.

Barry, who is the author of “Rising Tide,” is president of Restore Louisiana Now, a nonprofit that was set up in part to fend off challenges to the lawsuit.

He said the group had a poll done of about 1,000 residents of south Louisiana and found strong opposition to the Legislature nullifying the court action.

Barry said 74 percent of those quizzed in East Baton Rouge Parish opposed legislative intervention versus 18 percent who favored it; the rest were listed as “don’t know.”

In metro New Orleans, the split was 86 percent opposed and 12 percent in favor.

Overall 74 percent of respondents opposed legislative intervention in the legal action, while 21 percent backed it.

“I do not understand the opposition to the lawsuit,” Barry said.

“The industry did the damage,” he said “Everyone knows they did the damage.”