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Big Oil’s Loosening Grip

By Clancy Dubois  Gambit

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For generations, our politicians assumed that what was good for the oil and gas industry was good for Louisiana. As long as nobody looked too closely at what was happening in our coastal wetlands, few questioned that assumption.

Now we know better.

Even the industry’s internal documents show that oil companies knew for decades they were poisoning the environment and breaking the law. That’s why groups like the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA) are fighting so tenaciously to scuttle an environmental lawsuit filed last July by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. They know that if they get dragged into court, the jig is up.

The lawsuit seeks to hold the energy industry accountable for its share (and only its share) of coastal wetland loss caused by the construction of many miles of canals in the marshes of southeast Louisiana since the 1930s. The lawsuit claims the canals significantly accelerated coastal land loss and elevated the risk of hurricane-related flooding in metro New Orleans.

So far, supporters of the lawsuit are holding their own. Last Monday (March 10), a state judge in Baton Rouge dismissed a LOGA lawsuit seeking to invalidate SLFPA-E’s hiring of outside lawyers on a contingency-fee basis. That ruling came after LOGA president Don Briggs could not cite a single instance of an energy company leaving Louisiana, or a single well not being drilled here, because of environmental lawsuits.

On March 13, former SLFPA-E member John Barry and SLFPA-E lawyers fired back. They launched a website containing dozens of documents from court cases, statutes and energy industry memos proving, they say, that the industry knowingly destroyed coastal wetlands — and knowingly violated the law. The website (www.jonesswanson.com/slfpaecase/timeline) is hosted by the lead law firm handling the flood board’s lawsuit.

“Oil and gas folks are saying that their activities were closely regulated by the state,” Barry told a group of reporters in a telephone conference call. “The line being pushed by LOGA [and some lawmakers] is that industries were operating lawfully. That is clearly not the case.”

The industry documents cited on the website date from the 1930s and continue through 1989. Barry said most of the documents were gleaned from previous environmental lawsuits.

The documents contain some interesting environmental admissions, though not all of them relate directly to land loss in southeast Louisiana. Still, they show a pattern of neglect — and some admissions — by the oil industry regarding its environmental responsibilities.

For example, a 1989 study commissioned by the Louisiana Division of the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association dealt with the effects of “produced water” on surrounding marshes. Produced water is highly saline. That study, which focused on three sites, concluded that “active canal dredging associated with the development of [oil and gas] fields … and adjacent spoil banks significantly altered the hydrology of the marsh.”

Altered marsh hydrology — and its impact on hurricane-related flooding — is one of the primary allegations in the SLFPA-E lawsuit.

The same Mid-Continent study further concludes that “the direct and indirect effects of canal development tend to be the overwhelming cause of wetland losses” — another key allegation of the SLFPA-E suit.

LOGA dismissed the website as a publicity stunt and the lawsuit as a money grab by greedy trial lawyers who “have designed cookie cutter suits to extort money from the largest industry in the state.”

Actually, the SLFPA-E suit is the first of its kind, which is why the energy industry is so anxious to kill it.

Which brings us to the Louisiana Legislature. In the coming weeks, the political and PR battle will only intensify. There is cause for hope.

The Lake Charles American Press ran an editorial last week supporting the lawsuit. The editorial concluded, “Any assault on this lawsuit should be viewed as willful neglect of Louisiana’s wetlands, a position that the oil and gas industry has, by and large, practiced for decades.”

That, from a daily newspaper in a city that historically has been a hub of the petrochemical industry, is a sign that Big Oil’s grip may be loosening.