Oil and gas companies have cut countless canals through Louisiana’s wetlands in order to move oil and gas.
Louisiana is being slowly devoured by water. Hardly anyone disputes that. But beyond a shared sense of creeping panic, there’s little common ground in the state.
As over 2,000 miles of coast have been eaten away over the last 80 or so years, the state and federal government, oil and gas companies, activists and residents battled and bickered over funding the future of the state’s coast. So far, little has been accomplished.
John Barry, an author cum activist, hopes to change that.
Last July, Barry — then a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-e), a small Louisiana agency that oversees flood protection systems around New Orleans — helped lead the authority in filing suit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies. He and his cohort alleged that the companies, which ranged from state-based pipeline service providers to subsidiaries of multinational corporations like ExxonMobil, were responsible for decades of degradation to Louisiana’s coast. They said through exploration, canal dredging and drilling, the companies destroyed much of the state’s coast. And they claimed that as the governmental body tasked with overseeing flood protection for the New Orleans area, they had a responsibility to restore that coast in order to better prevent Louisiana's low-lying areas from being inundated during storms.
Over the last seven months, the lawsuit has burgeoned from a shot in the dark to a symbol of Louisiana’s future. Supporters say the suit proves that Louisiana is ready to move beyond an era when Texaco’s flag flew above the state Capitol. Detractors say it will scare away investment from the state.
Now as Barry waits for a federal judge to decide whether the suit should proceed in federal or state court, the government of Louisiana is in a race to stop the lawsuit in its tracks. With a new legislative session beginning this week and several bills that would kill the lawsuit slated for votes, he and his supporters fear they are running out of time. They say their only hope is that a judge gets to the lawsuit before legislators do.
“This is what the law is for,” said Barry, whose former life as a mostly reclusive author has been overtaken by his current role as the lawsuit’s most vocal defender. “The principal of American society is everybody is equal before the law. The idea that the legislature could intervene and kill the lawsuit — that, frankly, is a little daunting.”
Jindal has made no secret of his disdain for Barry and his ilk.
But his words haven’t been enough to persuade the SFLPA-E to stop the lawsuit. In recent months, Louisiana’s government has tried to undermine the lawsuit, challenging its ability to hire outside lawyers, mounting a campaign against the state’s attorney general for supporting the suit, replacing authority members with people more in line with Jindal and even attempting to change the rules of how people are appointed in order to give the governor more control.
State lawmakers seem to be largely on Jindal’s side.
Shortly after the suit was filed, state Rep. Sam Jones put his allegiance bluntly, saying, “This House will probably not be punitive to the oil companies.”
And state Sen. Robert Adley, who co-owns an oil and gas consulting firm, said of the lawsuit, “the actions of the Louisiana attorney general and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East might be the worst case of neglect and lawbreaking I have witnessed.”
Three bills introduced by Adley, which await votes in the next months, would effectively kill the lawsuit. One would allow the governor to reject any proposed member of the SLFPA-E for any reason, meaning Jindal could eventually stack the authority in his favor. Another would require any government authority to get the permission of the governor and attorney general before hiring outside council and would apply retroactively. The third would limit agencies from filing suits to force oil and gas companies to pay for work done under coastal use permits and would also apply retroactively.
Adley said he submitted the bills at the request of Jindal’s office.
“We’re outnumbered,” said Rosenthal. “When you’re filing legislation where the not-subtle-at-all purpose is is to stack the Flood Authority with people who are pro–oil and gas ... it’s like being hit by a two-by-four.”
The fate of Adley’s bills won’t be known for weeks or months, but the governor and his allies have already made inroads in their quest to stop Barry and his lawsuit.
In September an independent committee seen by many as closely aligned with the governor chose not to reappoint Barry to the SLFPA-E. His replacement and two others appointed to the authority by Jindal in October voted against reaffirming the authority’s commitment to the suit. Luckily for Barry and his supporters, the other five members voted in favor of the suit, but those members could be replaced if Adley’s bill passes.
Jindal cut $500,000 in funding to the SLFPA-E in November.
Adley’s and Jindal’s offices did not return requests for comment on this story.
Officials from the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the agency responsible for maintaining and restoring the coast, have come out against the lawsuit, saying it would interfere with its $50 billion multifaceted plan to restore the coast.
Barry and other environmental activists have lauded the CPRA’s efforts, but he points out that no one knows where that $50 billion would come from. He said the SLFPA-E lawsuit could make a dent in that tab.