It’s embarrassing enough that the governor of Louisiana would side with corporate interests in trying to abort the lawsuit filed last summer by public officials against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies for damaging the coast.
But equally telling is how rapidly he went ballistic on behalf of Big Oil.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed the suit in July demanding that companies fulfill their legal obligation to fix the damage they did to coastal wetlands.
Within 24 hours, the Governor’s office came out swinging in oddly over-excited opposition.
If Jindal had a sound reason to oppose the civil lawsuit against Big Oil, he would have conferred calmly with his consultants, and he would have crafted a concise and meaningful explanation for his opposition. He also would have provided compelling data to support it. But he has not done that.
If he thought the suit was groundless and the Flood Protection Authority unqualified to file it, he could have waited for it to collapse in court or challenged it on legal grounds — which, significantly, he has not. Indeed, similar suits are being prepared at the parish level all over the region.
Instead, speaking through Garret Graves, his appointee as chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), Jindal has provided a rapidly morphing litany of hollow arguments that can neither be proven nor disproven.
For example, at a video-taped meeting of the Flood Protection Authority nominating committee that I attended on Sept. 13, Graves attacked individual members of the Flood Protection Authority by accusing some of them of filing their lawsuit to seek fame.
In my mind, when a politician avoids discussing the merits of an issue and instead launches personal attacks against those opposed to his views, it’s because there is nothing solid to stand on.
Graves has also wagged his index finger at two different public meetings I’ve attended and stated he “guarantees that if the lawsuit moves forward, that the state will get less money.”
What is missing from this statement is “from whom.” If Graves is saying that Congress will be disinclined to fund coastal restoration if corporate interests are put on the hook, the opposite is more likely. Congress would prefer the state to collect from the industry responsible for its coastal wetlands damage rather than expect taxpayers around the country to pick up the tab.
And if his concern is that the industry will be less than generous, he may be confusing near-term tensions around certain commitments made by the oil interests with longer-term and much larger sanctions against Big Oil that carry the force of law.
The reality, as ousted Flood Protection Authority member John Barry has suggested, is that when finally forced to pay, the industry will, in effect, spread the cost nationwide by adding a penny or two to the cost of a tank of gas. (Full disclosure: I am a board member of Restore Louisiana Now, the nonprofit Barry founded to continue the fight for coastal reclamation.)
Building coastal reclamation costs into the price of a tank of gas is a fair and reasonable way to finance the recovery of what is rightly called “America’s Wetland.”
Quite aside from its beauty and its importance as a storm buffer and staging ground for access to enormous energy reserves, Louisiana’s coast is the most productive fishery in the lower 48 states — and one of the planet’s most fragile ecologies. It must be saved.
At a recent CPRA meeting in Baton Rouge, Graves opined that “anyone who thinks the Legislature will not shut down this lawsuit is living in a dream world.”
That is leadership through intimidation — and also a rather dubious political prediction as parishes across the region take inspiration from the Flood Protection Authority’s action and prepare to file lawsuits of their own against Big Oil.
One of the bullying remarks from Graves at the Dec. 3 CPRA meeting in Baton Rouge hit particularly close to home for me. It was his observation that Flood Protection Authority commissioners work part-time — not full-time, as he and his staff do. The implication was that the commissioners lack the expertise and experience needed to file their lawsuit.
Logic like that is particularly specious when raised against levee boards now professionalized for the first time in their history, thanks to a post-Katrina referendum that passed overwhelmingly. Indeed, that kind of logic condemns any and every effort to try something new or innovative.
Similar accusations were leveled at me when I founded Levees.org.
After the levees broke, I was driven to lead a team that would show that — in New Orleans — the “natural disaster” called Katrina was in fact the worst civil engineering fiasco in U.S. history. My detractors said I had no credibility because I was not a civil engineer. Today, Levees.org is an influential grassroots group with 25,000 supporters and chapters in five states.
I am not a civil engineer, but I can see. I am not a lawyer, but I can read. I am not a math professor, but I can add. And now, using these same faculties, I am able to point out what should be more obvious with each passing day.
It’s been four months since the lawsuit was filed, and if there were a good reason for Jindal to continue shielding Big Oil from its legal responsibilities to the people of Louisiana, we would have heard it by now. We haven’t heard it, because it doesn’t exist.
No one wants a lawsuit, but in the case of our rapidly vanishing coastal wetlands, we really have no choice. We must allow the experts and the scientists to determine in a court of law what damage Big Oil did to our coastal wetlands — and, of course, how Big Oil should fix it.
Sandy Rosenthal is the founder of Levees.org and a board member of Restore Louisiana Now, both nonprofits.