Fireworks continue over lawsuit against oil and gas industry

In the latest thrust in a multipronged defense of the oil and gas industry by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority voted Wednesday to oppose the audacious lawsuit that Southeast Flood Protection Authority - East filed last month against about 100 oil and gas companies for their role in wetland destruction.

The CPRA stopped short of voting to take legal action, but Garret Graves, chairman of the CPRA board and coastal adviser to Jindal, suggested other things could happen to make the lawsuit go away.

Graves said it’s possible the lawsuit won’t pass procedural tests and won’t be allowed to proceed. Alternatively, he said, the governor could appoint new members to the flood authority board who would put an end to the lawsuit — a process the administration kicked off this week — or the state Legislature could intervene.

“Huge waste of time. Huge waste of money. And we’ll end up right back where we were in July when this was filed,” Graves said. “Why?”

The CPRA’s vote to oppose the lawsuit followed a stormy, three-hour session at which CPRA members, one by one, spelled out reasons they disagree with the lawsuit filed by the Southeast Flood Protection Authority — East.

The vote was taken after a 10-minute executive session.

The lawsuit at issue was filed last month against about 100 oil and gas companies and seeks compensation for coastal wetlands damaged or destroyed during the course of the industry’s work.

The damage includes land loss through the digging of canals to provide access to drilling and pipeline locations, as well as damage from increased saltwater intrusion, erosion and alteration of wetland hydrology that the canals and canal spoil banks caused.

In opposing the suit, the CPRA rejected an olive branch the flood protection authority extended at its meeting last week, when commissioners unanimously supported a measure that would allow the lawsuit to be “paused” if state government started working on an alternative proposal that would achieve the same ends.

Although all speakers said they agree that coastal land loss is a major issue that needs to be addressed, CPRA members listed a variety of reasons why they thought the flood authority’s approach was the wrong way to go.

Among their reasons:

The lawsuit will hurt the economy.

The levee district and the state already get help from the oil and gas companies on restoration projects.

The oil and gas industry only account for a portion of the cumulative cause of coastal land loss.

The lawsuit is a distraction from other coastal work.

Working together cooperatively will get more done.

The lawsuit will interfere with larger state goals when it comes to coastal restoration.

John Barry, vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East and a member of the CPRA, was on the hot seat for most of the meeting. He started off the discussion trying to answer concerns he had heard previously.

Responding to Graves’ question as to why the lawsuit was filed against the industry, Barry said: “The reason is we think it’s necessary to protect the public.”

He said the flood authority doesn’t see how the lawsuit could impact jobs or other efforts, projects or actions of the state, such as the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill lawsuits.

“What’s at stake here is the very existence of Louisiana as we know it,” Barry said. “The lawsuit presents a choice; protect the industry from having to live up to its word and obey the law, or protect people’s lives and property from the crawling death of a vanishing shoreline and the violence of a hurricane storm surge.”

He said the oil and gas industry has done work to help address coastal restoration, but it hasn’t been enough.

Although Barry agreed coastal land loss has multiple causes, he said that doesn’t mean an industry that caused part of the problem should be let off the hook.

“It has to fix the part of the problem it created,” Barry said.

But other CPRA members said the lawsuit was counterproductive.

“Everything (about coastal land loss) is true. We have a lot of problems,” said Billy Nungesser, Plaquemines Parish president and member of the state authority. “But you’re going about it the wrong way.”

Windell Curole, director of the South Lafourche Levee District and a CPRA member, echoed several other speakers when he said, “The oil and gas industry is part of our community.”

Daniel Walker, an attorney in Houma, agreed.

“The lawsuit is a bad idea. It’s a cannibalization of our own community,” he said.