When the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed its lawsuit against oil and gas companies for damages to coastal wetlands last month, vice president John Barry said he fully expected serious blowback from much of Louisiana’s political establishment.
Wednesday, a joint meeting of the House and Senate committees on transportation, highways and public works did its best to make Barry a prophet.
Led by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, a longtime oil and gas businessman, most of the politicians who spoke during the three-hour meeting used Barry, the board and the lawsuit as piñatas.*
When they were finished, they handed the floor over to Garret Graves, head of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, and Giuseppe R. Miserendino, representing the Association of State Levee Boards and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, to add some finishing kicks.
The committee’s biggest complaints:
The board decided to act alone. Barry and his colleagues contend that the law establishing the board made it independent of the governor and Legislature specifically so it could go about its business of protecting lives and property.
Adley, who helped write the law, and others disagreed, accusing the board of usurping the Legislature and governor’s authority to speak for the state.
Only one of the nine members who spoke, Rep. Karen Gaudet St. Germain, D-Plaquemine, agreed with the board’s stand, and applauded them for being independent. She, too, helped write the law.
They fear the board’s action will end agreements between oil and gas companies and levee districts to support flood protection.
Some of the speakers said the most serious factor in land loss was the federal government’s levees along the Mississippi River, which have prevented sediment from replenishing marshlands. Several acknowledged, however, that oil and gas companies are responsible for some of the damage to the coast.
They were offended by the board’s decision to hire trial lawyers. Some questioned the legality of the process the board employed to get the approval of the state Attorney General to do so.
They believe it’s unwise to sue an industry — one that employs hundreds of thousands of Louisianians — for work the state in essence “asked them” to do.
Graves voiced most of these criticisms as well. He also said he’s concerned that the suit will hurt the state’s chances of passing a bill in Congress to increase its share of offshore mineral royalties.
Adley, in particular, seemed incensed by the board’s action. He suggested that his committee would revamp the law that outlines how the board’s members are nominated.
Barry: No one disputed our facts
Barry said he didn’t see the meeting as a beat-down. “I don’t think that is correct at all,” he said, pointing out that several of the nine speakers didn’t directly oppose the suit, but instead questioned the board’s procedures.
In Barry’s view, the most important takeaway from the meeting was that “not a single member of that committee disputed our facts that the industry is responsible for a very sizable percentage of the problem. There was not a single question that indicated there was any doubt we were correct on the substance.”
He pointed out most of the committee members questioned whether the oil companies had broken any laws, considering that they had permits to dredge canals and drill for oil and gas.
“We think they did not comply with the law,” he said. “That’s where we disagree. If we didn’t think that, we wouldn’t have filed the suit.
“So if they did not break the law, then we lose the suit.”
Live blog of committee meeting
*Correction: This story originally misidentified Sen. Robert Adley. (Aug. 15, 2013)