Three former Louisiana governors, State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, more than 100 legal experts, and a number of environmental groups and state politicians urged Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal not to sign a bill that would kill a New Orleans area flood authority’s lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies. On Friday, Gov. Jindall signed that bill. Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, called the signing “a huge victory for the oil and gas industry.”
Not only were there significant concerns over the companies’ responsibility for paying for years of damaging dredging and destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal wetlands, but also that the bill could undermine other lawsuits against oil and gas interests in Louisiana — including claims against BP over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“For his own agenda, Governor Jindal has now put over 1 million people, their lives, and their property at risk,” Gladstone Jones, lead attorney for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) suit, said in an emailed statement. “Further, he may very well have cost those same people and their communities billions of dollars.”
The SLFPA-E filed the suit last summer, which asks the companies to restore damaged wetlands or offer financial compensation for areas beyond repair, money that could be used for levee maintenance or construction. Oil and gas companies have been cutting canals through Louisiana’s coastal wetlands for decades to move equipment and build pipelines. This activity has led to saltier marshes that don’t support as much erosion-preventing plant life. It is slowly destroying the natural buffer that protected many of Louisiana’s coastal communities.
The cost of rebuilding this defense system within 50 years is estimated at $50 billion or more. It is unclear where this money will come from, and the lawsuit was meant to further the process of attributing responsibility.
Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles, about a quarter of its coastal land area, to the Gulf of Mexico. For the foreseeable future this will continue at the rate of about a football field of land every hour. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the wetlands could be gone in 200 years. With sea level rise of several feet possible by the end of the century due to climate change, the rate of submersion could easily accelerate.
The lawsuit states that in “racing to extract the region’s resources,” the oil and gas industry built a canal network of more than 10,000 miles that is “a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction.”
Steve Murchie, the Gulf Restoration Network’s campaign director, called the legislation “governance at its worst:”
Poorly written, for the worst of reasons, with no public benefit, and having potentially staggering unintended consequences. Governor Jindal, in his zeal to please the oil and gas industry and further his political ambitions, has abandoned the hundreds of thousands of Louisianians facing another hurricane season with inadequate storm protection and a disappearing coast.
For his part, Gov. Jindal said he was “proud to sign it into law” in a statement, calling the litigation “frivolous.”
SLFPA-E is an independent board that oversees flood protection for New Orleans and was created after Hurricane Katrina tore through the region in 2005. It was meant to include scientists and other concerned citizens and act independently of politician’s whims. Jindal has so far replaced three members of the board whose terms have expired with nominees who shared his opposition to the lawsuit.
“Is there a single person in Louisiana who believes the governor is putting the state’s interest ahead of his personal ambition?” said John Barry, former vice chairman of the flood authority who has since been ousted after Gov. Jindal said he would not reappoint him even if he was nominated by an independent committee. “People want to call me an environmental activist, but this is not about activism. This is about law and order,” Barry told the National Journal. “The law required [companies] to clean up after themselves, and they didn’t do it.”
Barry told a local news station that BP was one of the most active oil groups lobbying for passage of the bill, which made him suspicious of how the company could use the law to fight future state and local spill claims.
Last year, environmental groups pointed out that Jindal had received a total of $1,019,777 from oil and gas companies and executives in state election campaigns between 2003 and 2013. Only a fraction of the estimated $50 billion cost of coastal restoration, the groups charged it was enough to buy Jindal’s opposition. Jindal’s signing of the bill in the face of a swelling veto movement last week would appear to strengthen their claim.