Peter Moskowitz/Al Jazeera America

As Louisiana’s coast disappears, so does landowners’ money

Residents in coastal areas say Louisiana’s government is laying claim to privately held land and mineral rights

ERATH, La. — On a boat trip through the canals of Vermilion Parish last month to survey parish native Carlin Trahan’s land, Trahan, his lawyer Warren Perrin, and their friend and boat captain David Dronet began bragging about how well they knew the wetlands that surrounded them. They claimed each could navigate the monotonous browns and blues of every canal at night, without GPS. They said even if they were turned around and lost, they could find their way back to land. They boasted that they knew the wetlands in Vermilion Parish so well that each could look at an edge of wetland and say where it extended to 10 years ago, and where — thanks to global warming and oil exploration — it has receded to by now.

In this rural section of the Louisiana coast, about two hours west of New Orleans and two hours east of the Texas border, the vast, sprawling wetlands are as much a part of the region's culture as Acadian French.

The wetlands provide recreation: Vermilion Parish residents go out to their camps on weekends to fish and boat. Hundreds of the camps — little vacation houses built on stilts — dot the edges of dozens of miles of man-made canals that snake their way through high sawgrass out into Vermilion Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

And beneath the wetlands are millions of barrels of oil and gas that for decades have provided a vital economic lifeline for the area, and for families including Carlin Trahan’s. While not everyone in Vermilion Parish is fortunate enough to own mineral rights, the oil and gas industry nonetheless permeates every crevice of the area’s sparsely populated 1,500 square miles — employing its residents as drillers and maintenance men and helping fill up its hotel rooms, restaurants and Walmarts.

But now, as miles of Louisiana coast disappear each year, Vermilion Parish residents fear they’re starting to lose that way of life, and the money required to live it.

A set of laws unique to Louisiana allows the state to claim the minerals found under any navigable body of water. That has troubling implications for landowners in Vermilion Parish and every other coastal region of the state. The laws mean that as more land becomes submerged under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico each year, more and more money that once flowed from oil and gas drilling companies to the bank accounts of landowners now flows directly into the coffers of the state.  

We own property, we pay the taxes and they get the profits.

Carlin Trahan

Landowner in Vermilion Parish

Landowners here say the law not only hurts their pocketbooks, but also creates a disincentive for Louisiana’s government to care about coastal areas and repair and maintain wetlands. The theory goes that if the cash-strapped state can make money off gaining increased mineral rights, then it has no reason to help keep privately owned bayou property from going underwater.

"They don’t bother you until there’s [oil] production, and then come around and grab the land,” said Trahan, a 74-year-old retired systems technician with Mobil whose extended family has owned land around Vermilion Bay for decades. “We own property, we pay the taxes and they get the profits.”

Trahan’s family has been fighting with the state for two years over a swath of 250 acres around the bay.

He and Perrin, his lawyer, said that until recently they had no clue the state claimed ownership of any of the Trahan family’s acres. Leasing the land to the local oil exploration firm PetroQuest in 2006 went off without a hitch. It wasn’t until early 2012, when PetroQuest started producing oil on the land, that Trahan and his family realized something was amiss.

Warren Perrin, Carlin Trahan's lawyer, points to land they believe is rightfully Trahan's, on a map in the Acadian Museum in Erath, La.
Peter Moskowitz/Al Jazeera America

The state never sent a letter to the family, according to Trahan. Instead, when the family got a breakdown of their royalty check each month, they noticed a line listing “State of La.” as one of the participants in the oil deal. The state was claiming 40 of the 250 acres and siphoning off about $80,000 a month in royalties.

Trahan and his family are currently in the early stages of preparing a lawsuit against the state.

But while the diverted cash may seem wrong to Vermilion Parish landowners like Trahan, it might be perfectly legal.

One of the many laws inherited by Louisiana from its French colonizers gives the state ownership of any navigable waterways, which are defined as places where boats could theoretically pass through during the high tide of winter months. Louisiana law also links land ownership to the ownership of minerals underneath.

Perrin points out that the laws might have made more sense in France, where there are fewer wetlands, but they create problems in Louisiana, where wetlands are practically everywhere, mostly privately owned and rapidly disappearing.

According to U.S. Geological Survey data, the state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land since 1932 — roughly the size of Delaware.

“As global warming increases and water moves inland, what’s considered a natural navigable water body will change also,” said Sally Richardson, a law professor at Tulane University. “But the state may be claiming more now. People care about the land a lot more once there’s money involved.”

Indeed, the question of why the state is getting involved right now seems to irk residents of Vermilion Parish more than the mere existence of the arcane laws.

Trahan and others say the state never asked about their land, or claimed partial ownership of it, until oil was being produced beneath it.

There’s no easy way to know why the state claims a certain piece of land or how often it does it. A representative for Louisiana’s Office of State Lands declined to comment for this story. But experts and residents say there seems to be a pattern of the state laying stake to land only when there’s money-making potential.

“The state is not exactly consistent in when they claim land, and when there’s minerals underneath, that’s when they tend to do it,” said Mark Davis, the director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane University. “In a coast as dynamic as ours, conflict is almost inevitable.”

Beyond the initial shock of losing money, Trahan and other residents say the state’s actions don’t surprise them. They say that Louisiana’s government for decades has ignored places like Vermilion Parish, home to just under 60,000 of the state’s residents, in favor of population centers and tourist destinations like New Orleans. And they say that, given the cash-poor status of Louisiana’s government, they don’t expect the state to stop taking payments, or start better protecting wetlands, anytime soon.

Trahan, Perrin and boat captain Dronet go through the canals of the parish’s wetlands frequently, either to fish or to check out the land where Trahan owns oil. But each time their boat hums along past the simple wooden camps, the egrets and the oil wells, they’re reminded by how the land never stops shrinking.

“We don’t have enough industry, we don’t have enough people and we don’t have the economic engine for [the state] to care about it,” Dronet said. “So they just let it go.”

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