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James Gill: Tide turning on oil industry

 November 17, 2013

It took a while, but the resistance is making headway.

The occupying forces, while not exactly on the run, may soon be forced to the negotiating table. The quisling government is starting to look rattled. Citizens want their country back.

Such is the current condition of Louisiana, which has been under the foreign heel of oil and gas so long that recompense for the massive destruction and exploitation seemed out of the question. Toxins leached into the shrinking wetlands and natural flood barriers washed away, but oil and gas were abundant and politicians cheap. The companies extracted billions of dollars and doubtless regarded the natives with contempt.

They still have some powerful collaborators, Gov. Bobby Jindal chief among them. But the tide seems to be turning.

Jindal blew his stack a couple of months ago when the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East sued 97 oil and gas companies for despoiling the coastal zone. Jindal claimed that the Authority had exceeded its authority, which was demonstrably untrue, and that the lawsuit would interfere with the state’s coastal restoration master plan, although nobody in his administration has ever explained what inconvenience would result from chucking more money in the pot.

At any event, Jindal did not want oil and gas held responsible for their depredations. He threw John Barry, prime mover behind the lawsuit, off the Authority, and threatened to enact restrictions on its autonomy in next year’s session.

But that just became a little less likely, because it is suddenly all the rage to file suit requiring oil and gas to fix what they broke or pay compensation. Plaquemines Parish has sued 21 companies, Jefferson Parish seven, and their example will probably inspire others. Legislators may be loath to get in the way if the folks back home are keen to see oil and gas pay their debts.

Nobody, not even Jindal’s coastal guru Garret Graves, doubts that lawless oil and gas companies are responsible for much of Louisiana’s wetlands loss. Companies dug their canals and built their pipelines often without the requisite permits and routinely ignored the law that required them to restore the terrain they damaged.

Nobody doubts either that there won’t be much of a future for south Louisiana unless we arrest and ideally reverse the erosion. The only question is who should pay to fix the wetlands- you and I or the companies that laid waste to them?

That’s not exactly a tough call, although the Jindal administration, in demanding that the Flood Protection Authority drop its suit, preferred to stick the taxpayer with the tab. Now that the parishes are following suit, however, Graves is apparently more sympathetic to the idea of litigation. He justifies this change of heart by noting that the parishes’ suits are filed by elected officials, whereas the Flood Protection Authority is appointive, although what difference that makes is obvious only to him. The Authority has the same standing to sue as a parish council.

Graves also raises a familiar specter: greedy trial lawyers, working on contingency, will bag “a sizable percentage of the proceeds” if they prevail in the Flood Protection Authority suit. Sure, they will, but lawyers won’t be representing the parishes for nothing either.

As Barry points out in an online column, “well-defined guidelines” indicate that plaintiff lawyers in the various cases will cop about the same percentage. Besides, there really is no need to hide under the bed every time some Republican politician yells, “Trial lawyer!” Complex cases often take years, and there’s always the chance of losing.

But it is beginning to look as though no cases will come to court as demands grow for oil and gas to be held to account and the administration’s objections grow ever more cockamamie, a sure sign that there are no rational grounds for dispute.

Indeed, the Barry faction has always hoped a statewide settlement could be negotiated, and now Graves is starting to sing the same song. “Attempts to work co-operatively with industry would be a prudent first step in addressing any potential liability,” he said the other day.

That’s an improvement on the administration’s earlier pronouncements, but “Vive la revolution” would be more like it.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@