Odd couple Gov. John Bel Edwards, Attorney General Jeff Landry team up to achieve critical coastal restoration
In an effort to keep Louisiana’s fight for coastal restoration progress in the southern parishes of the state on the top of everyone’s mind, we have provided another story from The Advocate for you. Read more below about the ongoing works of Gov. Edwards and AG Landry in helping to clean our coast and reach a settlement.
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Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry are engaged in an uneasy alliance to try to achieve a major and long-lasting goal: a settlement with oil and gas companies to help restore Louisiana’s eroding coast.
Billions of dollars are at stake — as well as the coastline.
Landry and the governor’s executive counsel, Matthew Block, have held private meetings with coastal parish officials and, at Landry’s request, asked them to not take legal action for 60 days while the attorney general and Edwards try to establish a unified front between themselves and among the parishes. The voluntary 60-day cooling period ends on June 13.
Three parishes — Cameron, Jefferson and Plaquemines — have filed lawsuits accusing oil and gas companies of destroying coastal marsh and wetlands through their drilling activities. Other parishes also are weighing whether to file their own lawsuits, legal sources said. Additional lawsuits could be the stick that brings oil and gas companies to the negotiating table.
Whether the governor and attorney general can forge a working relationship to produce a negotiated resolution on the coastal lawsuits remains an open question. Landry has been aggressively challenging Edwards’ authority on other issues during his first few months as attorney general, including asking the Legislature for his own budget authority, over the governor’s objection.
Some insiders believe that Landry wants a greater say over his spending to have the leeway to hire his own attorneys in the coastal lawsuits.
Political insiders believe that Landry, a Republican, is carving out a distinct role to position himself to run against Edwards, a Democrat, in the 2019 governor’s race, something he has denied. Some of the trial lawyers believe that Landry, who has been close to oil and gas industry officials, is doing their bidding.
A spokeswoman for Landry said he did not have time for an interview.
Block, a trial lawyer from Thibodaux who is now the governor’s executive counsel, said his office and Landry’s are working together harmoniously,
“I don’t believe anyone who attended the meetings would say there was big tension between the attorney general and the governor on this case,” Block said.
Nonetheless, each side has moved to gain the upper hand in the lawsuits, in a sign of the mistrust between them.
Landry convened individual meetings with coastal parish leaders April 12 and 13 at his office in the State Capitol, but he did include Block in each gathering. Landry’s spokeswoman, Ruth Wisher, did not respond to requests for a list of the parishes that attended.
“The intent is to try to bring all of this together and reach some sort of global resolution,” Chris Roberts, an at-large councilman in Jefferson Parish, said in an interview. Roberts missed the meeting because of traffic congestion but was briefed afterward on what happened.
In March, Landry filed a lawsuit to intervene in the lawsuits already filed against the oil and gas industry by Cameron, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.
Edwards countered three weeks later by having his secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, the state agency empowered to enforce coastal regulations, also intervene in the lawsuits to ensure he was not left out.
Edwards made the next move by meeting on May 13 with two dozen oil and gas industry lobbyists and attorneys, where he pitched the idea of a settlement.
According to several people present, Edwards told them that restoring the coast would cost about $100 billion over the next 50 years and that oil industry documents showed companies caused at least 30 percent of the damage. The governor also said he does not plan to heed a demand by industry officials by seeking money from the federal government for the construction of the levees that have curtailed sediment-rich flooding from the Mississippi River, flooding that fed the wetlands.
The goal of any settlement discussions, Edwards administration officials believe, is to devise a process that would determine how much damage individual companies caused and to craft a formula to determine how much each one would pay and exactly how that money would be allocated to rebuild wetlands that have disappeared.
Two senior aides to the attorney general attended that meeting in a further sign of cooperation between Landry and Edwards. Also attending was Taylor Townsend, a Natchitoches-based trial attorney and former state House member who is now the governor’s outside counsel on the coastal lawsuits.
The governor has gotten a chilly response, at least publicly, to his effort to generate settlement talks.
“It is evident that the state is seeking to move us into an area of discussion that is impossible,” Don Briggs, the long-time president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, and Chris Johns, the president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, which represents the major oil companies, wrote in a letter to Edwards afterward.
Briggs followed that up with an opinion piece Thursday that further stated his antipathy to any settlement discussions.
“Simply put, these lawsuits targeting the state’s number one source of private sector jobs and revenue are based on the misguided premise that some producers violated the terms of their state-issued coastal use permits many years ago, and those activities caused coastal erosion,” he wrote. “In spite of all the rhetoric from a handful of trial lawyers and radical environmental activists making these claims, these lawsuits are completely unnecessary.”
Understanding exactly what will happen next is difficult to divine.
“It seems that there is a chess game going on,” said Mark Davis, the director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane. “That suggests to me that something might be afoot. It might provide much-needed dollars for coastal restoration.”
Amid the legal and political sparring, a football field of land disappears every hour, researchers say, adding up to 20 to 25 square miles per year.
The effort to try to resolve the coastal lawsuits through negotiation marks a sharp turnabout from the approach under Gov. Bobby Jindal. He got the Legislature to approve a measure that would kill a similar but different lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East. A state court overturned the law, but a federal court dismissed the lawsuit, although the agency has appealed that ruling.
Nonetheless, the effort to hold the oil and gas companies liable remains very much alive because of the lawsuits filed by the three parishes.
Don Carmouche, a Baton Rouge-based trial attorney, brought the lawsuits in Cameron, Plaquemines and Jefferson along with Phil Cossich, a major trial attorney based in Belle Chasse. Both men attended the meetings with the attorney general and Block that involved those three parishes.
“All of the entities involved — the governor and the attorney general — believe that it’s time to restore the coast,” Carmouche said in an interview. “It’s washing away. Everyone says the major oil companies have some responsibility. They continue to deny their responsibility. Now is the time to do it.”
Not all coastal leaders, however, agree with this view.
Gordon Dove, the president of Terrebonne Parish, said he left the meeting with Landry and Block unmoved in his view that the federal government through its construction of the Mississippi River levees — not the oil companies — is to blame for the coastal loss. He doesn’t see Terrebonne joining with the others to file a lawsuit and noted that the industry is a major employer in his parish.
“They’re going after the oil industry because it has a deep pocket,” Dove said, but he added, “Maybe something can come together where the oil companies will donate money for coastal erosion.”
Benny Rousselle, a Plaquemines Parish council member, came to a different conclusion than Dove after meeting with Landry and Block on April 12.
Two days later, Rousselle pushed the council to reverse a previous decision and to move forward with its lawsuit against the oil and gas companies. The council approved this on a 6-1 vote.
“If discussions are going to be happening related to our parish, we should have a voice at the table,” Rousselle said in an interview, adding that the Carmouche and Cossich law firms have a deeper knowledge of the case than anyone working for the attorney general or the governor.
Carmouche said the firms are not working on a contingency fee basis. A judge would determine how much they receive after determining the amount his clients would get, he said.
St. Bernard Parish is prepared to file its own suit, with its council having voted to hire the Carmouche and Cossich law firms.
Guy McInnis, the parish president, said he and other parish officials are waiting to see where things stand once the cooling off period ends next month.
“We cannot let the state or other parishes have a settlement in their favor and have St. Bernard on the sidelines and not enjoying the benefits of the settlement,” McInnis said.
Jeff Adelson, of The New Orleans Advocate, contributed to this article. Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog athttp://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.