Jindal demands flood authority pull lawsuit targeting big oil

Published: Jul. 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 19, 2013 at 12:57 AM CDT
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An oil platform in the marsh near Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish (John Snell)
An oil platform in the marsh near Barataria Bay in Plaquemines Parish (John Snell)

New Orleans, La. -- Governor Bobby Jindal wasted no time responding to the east bank flood authority lawsuit that blames oil and gas companies for destroying wetlands, demanding that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East cancel its contract with a group of lawyers.

In a statement early Wednesday evening, just eight hours after the lawsuit was filed, Jindal insisted the SLFPAE had overstepped its authority and questioned the legality of the suit.

The statement said Jindal "is not going to let a single levee board – taken over by a group of trial lawyers – determine flood protection, coastal restoration and economic repercussions for the state."

The suit, filed in Orleans Civil District Court, targets 97 oil and gas companies, a virtual Who's Who of the industry from BP to Shell to Exxon-Mobil.

"It took 6,000 years to build [the coast]," said Gladstone Jones, the chief plaintiff's attorney. "It took 85 years on the oil and gas companies watch to destroy it."

The suit claims oil companies "ravaged Louisiana's coastal landscape," racing to extract oil and gas, injecting saltwater and chewing at the coast.

Since 1932, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of coastline.

Jones told a news conference at the flood authority's New Orleans headquarters that state law requires that oil and gas companies maintain the canals they dig in the marsh and restore the land when they are finished working the well.

By failing to do so, the lawsuit argues, the industry is largely responsible for the encroaching sea, violating a long-time state law mandating that one land owner not push water onto another.

Other factors play into Louisiana's land loss, chiefly Mississippi River levees, which rob the marsh of the annual spring floods that built the delta. However, a study for the U.S. Geological Survey blamed the industry for more than one-third of the coastal loss.

"We are not asking, or expecting, the industry to fix everything," said John Barry, the flood authority vice-president who spearheaded the suit. "We are asking that they fix the part of the problem that they caused."

If successful, the suit could force the industry to pay for wetlands projects, or to write checks to the flood authority for the cost of improving levees and flood walls.

Since Katrina, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent roughly $14 billion improving the metro New Orleans "hurricane risk-reduction system" to withstand a storm with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year, so-called "100-year protection."

Barry told reporters that level of protection "doesn't mean much," calling it "the lowest standard in the developed world."

Jindal's statement made clear the governor intends to take steps to derail the suit.

He cited a state law requiring that any special attorney or counsel compensated for representing a state board or commission be hired "solely on written approval of the governor and the attorney general and pay only such compensation as the governor and the attorney general may designate in the written approval."

The Jindal statement said he "did not approve this contract – nor would he have approved this contract."

Jindal said the suit oversteps the authority of the board by attempting to act on behalf of the state to determine coastal policy.

"This suit takes a myopic view of coastal Louisiana that actually jeopardizes and undermines our ability to implement the [Coastal] Master Plan," Jindal said.