James Gill: Coastal suit muddies waters

The levee board that has filed suit against oil companies for destroying Louisiana’s wetlands has been accused of a blinkered view.

The board, according to Representative Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, is forgetting that energy companies are “the backbone of our local economy.”

The increased costs of flood protection, for which the board is seeking compensation, are indeed only part of the story. In a just world, these turkeys would also be made to pay for screwing up our wildlife and fisheries.

But the board is doing all its jurisdiction allows to seek redress for the depredations that have extracted billions of dollars while more and more of Louisiana sinks beneath the waves. Making Big Oil mad is not going to help make Gov. Bobby Jindal president, and he threatens to derail the suit.

According to the GOP worldview, trial lawyers are greedy blackguards intent on shaking down corporations that are purely beneficent. “Job creation” is the oil companies’ raison d’etre, and the suit filed by the South East Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East will not only undermine the economy but wreck coastal restoration plans already in place. We never expect the straight dope from the Jindal administration, but this takes bogus reasoning to a new level.

Not even Jindal denies that oil and gas companies have contributed much to the degradation of the wetlands with canals and pipelines that run for thousands of miles. They have accelerated the subsidence of the land, channeling saltwater in to kill off vegetation and all the while ignoring their legal obligation to restore what they have pillaged.

Much of the storm protection that nature provided has disappeared and terrain we walked a few years ago is now out to sea. Nobody doubts that a huge infusion of money is required if this region is to enjoy a reasonable defense against hurricane surge. The only question is where the money should come from so that the levee board can meet its obligations.

You broke it, you pay to fix it, is the widely accepted principle that the levee board lawsuit adopts. But Jindal and his Republican kindred spirits have a different theory on who should pay for what the oil companies have destroyed. They figure you should.

Scalise, for instance, denounces the lawsuit as a “boondoggle” and says the best way to finance coastal restoration is by “dedicating offshore revenues” and fines paid by BP for the oil leak. But that money belongs to the public regardless of any compensation the oil companies are forced to make. Surely we need every dollar we are entitled to.

Jindal is of the same mind as Scalise, averring that the levee board has been “hijacked” by those stock villains, the trial lawyers. In fact, the board says it decided to file suit before hiring lawyers, who may indeed wind up rich, since they stand to make 32.5 percent of the first $100 million and a diminishing share thereafter. They may also wind up bankrupt; it will cost millions to prepare for litigation and they get zilch if they lose.

If the board withdraws the suit, the attorneys will recoup their expenses from the taxpayer. The board inserted a clause in the contract providing for that so that it would be harder for Jindal to hijack the suit by replacing or intimidating its members.

Jindal says the lawsuit will jeopardize the state’s 50-year coastal restoration master plan, but, since we need $50 billion to implement it, turning up the nose at any settlement the board might win seems foolhardy. John Barry, the board’s vice president and leading proponent of the suit, says that any projects it underwrites will conform with the plan.

Barry has no keener supporter in Louisiana than Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, who has been arguing for years in favor of heavier taxes on the oil and gas companies that have grown fat laying waste to the wetlands.

Campbell was in the state Senate the only other time an effort was made to hold those companies accountable. That was 30 years ago, when they barely broke a sweat rounding up enough tame legislators to kill Gov. Dave Treen ‘s proposed Coastal Wetlands Environmental Levy.

It was also on Treen’s watch that Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality was established. No, he wasn’t some kind of hippie; he was a Republican. He wouldn’t get far in the party today.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com