Does the flag of Texaco still fly over the Louisiana State Capitol? That’s the question writer John Barry posed to Lens readers recently. Barry is the vice chairman of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which is suing oil, gas and pipeline companies for accelerating the erosion of our coast.
In every meaningful sense the answer, of course, is yes. The state’s dominant industry is oil and gas, and energy barons still fund the candidates and call the shots. If they are crossed in the slightest, they wail like stuck pigs and invoke the specter of job losses. Large media outlets and the business community are always quick to join the chorus.
While Big Oil doesn’t have a physical banner that ripples atop the capitol, that’s merely a matter of discretion. State leaders have already pledged their allegiance to the pursuit of “black gold,” because it’s one of the unspoken requisites for obtaining higher office in these parts. A candidate who stirs trouble for oil interests is framed as a wild-eyed populist who misunderstands business. If she should make a runoff in an important race, she will doubtless meet a well-funded, “sensible” opponent who collects all the endorsements.
Meanwhile the bottom third of our state continues to vanish.
Barry, as spearhead of the Flood Authority’s lawsuit, wants to fix the problem before it’s too late. He claims that politics drives the opposition to his lawsuit. Evidence lies in the way opponents continue to ignore the question at its crux: Should oil and gas companies pay for the coast they disappeared?
The answer should be a simple affirmative. But notice how the energy industry and its allies in the Jindal administration dance and weave, rather than reply. They know the facts are on Barry’s side. Scientists, the state’s Master Plan, and even the oil and gas lobby all agree that the wetlands have been sliced and diced to support oil pipelines and other important infrastructure. It’s not the only reason our coast is shrinking, and Barry taken pains to note that. He asks only that the oil and gas industry fix the part of the coastline it broke.
As soon as the Flood Authority’s lawsuit was announced, the Jindal administration rabidly resisted it. But instead of arguing substance, opponents of the lawsuit questioned the motives of Barry and the board. They asserted that trial lawyers — a traditional GOP whipping boy — had “hijacked” the board. No matter, as Barry points out, that board members are mostly Republicans and voted unanimously to file and recommit to the lawsuit.
The latest iteration of this line of attack came from Don Briggs, the president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. Recently, Briggs blamed “aspiring author”John Barry for having a “self-serving approach” to the lawsuit. The implication was that Barry is less interested in coastal loss than he is in finding material for his next book.
Barry offers plenty of argument in his righteous opinion piece, so there is no need for nervous public officials and oil lobbyists to speculate about his motives. Such evasions and ad hominem attacks are not only insulting; they’re beside the point.
The rule in politics is to keep your argument as simple as possible — and repeat it. If you have to explain yourself at length, you’re on the defensive. And defensiveness doesn’t win elections. Thus, the better political response to an attack is a counterattack that shifts the context: Greedy trial lawyers are behind your suit.
In a recent New York Times article on the lawsuit, coastal czar Garret Graves engages on substance, but quickly finds himself backtracking with complicated explanations. Consider the following passage:
Mr. Graves said the state was focused on three areas: attaining penalties and legal remedies from the BP spill, pushing legislation that would bring Louisiana a substantial share of offshore drilling royalties currently going into the federal treasury and battling with the Army Corps of Engineers over its management of the Mississippi River.
“You have to strategize, prioritize and sequence,” he said in an e-mail. Asked if the state’s strategy could conceivably involve litigation against energy companies for historical wetlands damage, Mr. Graves said that was “not our plan A, B, C, D or X.”
Mr. Barry said he fully supported holding the federal government accountable. But the cost of coastal protection is enormous and growing, he said, and he cannot see any way this lawsuit would interfere with these other efforts.
“All we’re trying to do is have a court decide whether we’re right or not, that they broke the law,” he said. “And if they broke the law, they need to fix the part of the problem that they created. It is so simple.”
While Barry keeps it simple, Graves talks about strategizing, prioritizing and sequencing various initiatives to secure funding. Not only is that politically ineffective, it leads to more questions. For example: what happens to the priority sequence when a new administration takes over?
In sum, opponents of the lawsuit are caught on the more complicated side of the argument, and that’s a large political liability. They recognize that and don’t like it. That is why we’ve seen them question Barry’s motives rather than confront the central question he asks: Shouldn’t Big Oil pay to fix the coast it helped destroy? Shouldn’t it be held accountable under laws it violated for decades?
As the Jindal administration scrounges for sophistries, most of us can answer those questions simply and in the affirmative. If we can’t, it’s time to take the pelican off our state flag and stuff her in an oil drum.