With three of the nation’s largest environmental groups working out of local offices to help save Louisiana’s drowning coast, it seemed only a matter of time before they voiced support for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East’s lawsuit against oil and gas companies for damages to the region’s wetlands. After all, green groups have been criticizing the state’s cozy relationship with oil and gas for decades. Finally, here was an official state body making an historic break with that tradition.

Yet three weeks later, the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Audubon Society remain silent on the lawsuit.

After working separately for a couple years, the three groups joined together in 2008 to create the Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition, a well-funded drive to gain national support for salvaging the state’s abused, collapsing coast. A large part of that effort has been championing the state’s Coastal Master Plan, developed by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The state authority is headed by Garret Graves, an outspoken critic of the lawsuit.

Restore spokesmen said the coalition’s mission — saving the coast — is the reason for its silence on the lawsuit, not the politics of its working relationship with the CPRA.

When The Lens asked local officials with the three national groups for their organization’s position on the lawsuit, all of them referred to a joint statement that acknowledges damage by the oil and gas industry and recognizes that wetlands loss hinders flood protection – the case made by the flood protection authority. The statement stops short of supporting the suit:

Regardless of one’s position on the lawsuit, the critical point that everyone can agree on is that when we lose wetlands in south Louisiana, we lose flood protection and our communities suffer. It’s a direct relationship.

For decades we have known that oil and gas activities have contributed to wetland loss in coastal Louisiana. There are also legitimate questions about the roles and responsibilities of regulatory agencies, landowners, and political leaders in relation to the behavior of oil companies. This case provides another forum, in this case a judicial forum, for a real discussion about how we take collective steps toward restoring and protecting a coast that we all depend on.

In the meantime, the work of restoration and flood protection under the state’s plan for coastal sustainability needs to go forward as aggressively and rapidly as possible, as does the important discussion about sustainable funding for these long-term efforts.

Finally, if the lawsuit goes forward and at some point a settlement is reached or a judgment assessed, the outcome should be directed specifically to supporting ongoing coastal restoration under the state’s plan.

David Muth, who directs the National Wildlife Federation’s restoration efforts in Louisiana, said that the statement reflects the position of the Louisiana coalition members, not their national organizations.

“In this instance we are acting as a group of organizations that have come together to stay focused on one purpose: getting the wholesale restoration of the coast under way,” he said.

For that reason the groups were not part of a coalition of environmental organizations that held a press conference on July 30 in New Orleans to announce support for the suit. Participants included local representatives of the Sierra Club, the Gulf Restoration Network, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Aaron Viles, who represented the Gulf Restoration Network at the conference but has since moved to Faithful America, said he understands the national groups’ reluctance to support the suit.

“I’m not going to bust their chops because clearly environmental groups, just like every organization, operate in a political landscape,” he said. “And as we have seen from the very strong knee-jerk responses from the governor and Congressman [Steve] Scalise and certain members of our political class, there are ramifications from crossing some of these leaders.

“These groups have to work with some of them, so it’s not a surprise they haven’t been vocal on this.”

Bob Marshall

From 2013 to 2017, Bob Marshall covered environmental issues for The Lens, with a special focus on coastal restoration and wetlands. While at The Times-Picayune, his work chronicling the people, stories...