Stephanie Grace: Complicated back story of lawsuit dispute

So maybe there’s more than meets the eye to the Jindal administration’s over-the-top denunciation of Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East’s lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies over decades of catastrophic wetlands loss.

Perhaps all that vitriol isn’t only about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ideology, the industry’s political stroke, the jobs, the trial lawyers and the levee authority’s structural independence or lack thereof. Maybe it’s also about the administration’s plans to target a different culprit, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Garret Graves, Jindal’s top coastal adviser and the point person in his fight against the levee authority lawsuit, has now all but confirmed that the state is seriously considering filing suit against the corps over much of the same environmental degradation.

During the latest of his public attacks against the suit during last week’s levee authority meeting, Graves, who chairs Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, decried the corps’ alleged contribution to wetland losses. Noting that the agency has missed numerous deadlines for congressionally required plans to mitigate the effects of its work in the New Orleans area, Graves suggested the corps is responsible for far more land loss than the oil and gas companies.

“Ultimately, if we can’t get the corps to do the right thing, we’re going to have to pivot to a stick approach,” he said.

Another hint that something else was up came earlier that morning when author John Barry, who was removed from the levee authority by Jindal for spearheading the lawsuit, spoke at a breakfast briefing sponsored by The Lens. Barry said that, before he and his fellow board members decided to sue the industry, he’d been asked to meet with Jimmy Faircloth, the governor’s former executive counsel and now the administration’s go-to private lawyer.

At first glance, the either/or approach is puzzling. Since just about everyone involved in coastal issues, Graves included, acknowledges that both industry and the corps have contributed to the harm, why not pursue both, have the courts officially allot responsibility and seek proportional remedies?

There are complications, though.

Legally, the suits could affect and possibly interfere with one another if, say, different courts issue conflicting rulings or damage determinations. Politically, going after the industry is dicey, particularly for a pro-business, pro-drilling, anti-regulation Republican with national aspirations, while targeting government is more palatable.

But substituting one defendant for another is problematic too. It’s notoriously difficult to sue the corps, and any damages would fall on the taxpayers, not private companies that have profited handsomely from Louisiana’s natural resources and lax regulatory environment.

Still, it’s not hard to figure why the administration would avoid upsetting the state’s longstanding grand bargain with an industry that supports politicians and plays a vital economic role. The real question is whether it’s too late to stop it.

The political class in Baton Rouge has given the levee authority the cold shoulder, and Jindal has made no secret of his intent to ask the Legislature to invalidate the suit next spring. Reaction to the suit among lawmakers has ranged from hushed to loudly hostile.

The pushback has come from several conservative coastal parishes, Jefferson and Plaquemines, which have each filed a number of suits over alleged violations of specific oil and gas permits.

Public opinion is in play as well. In a statewide Southern Media & Opinion Research poll released last week, 50 percent said the initial levee authority suit against oil and gas should continue, while 36 percent favored dropping it. Support for the suit was strongest in the New Orleans area, not just in the Democratic congressional 2nd District but also in the Republican 1st District.

Industry leaders, like Jindal administration officials, clearly sense danger.

“Whether it is Legacy Lawsuits, the BP claims, the SLFPAE suit or now these ridiculous claims by Plaquemines and Jefferson Parish, the idea remains the same: Drain as much money from the oil and gas industry as possible,” Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Don Briggs recently wrote.

They’ve got reason to worry. If the grand bargain finally comes up for renegotiation, it’s hard to imagine the industry could win such favorable terms.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.