Oil service canals in the Barataria Basin show the ravages of an industry that has given much to Louisiana and taken even more. Credit: Dr. Terry McTigue / NOAA

What was changed Thursday by the local levee authority’s offer to hold off on some of its lawsuit against the oil and gas industry if the Jindal administration met certain conditions?

Nothing, really. It’s still in the hands of the courts and the Legislature.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East board passed a resolution Thursday to “consider a 45-day pause in the substantive portion of the suit, and in the interim we request the CPRA [Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority] set up a task force to examine and review all ramifications of the lawsuit.”

The only member not to vote for the resolution was board president Tim Doody, who recused himself because he works at a law firm that might represent a defendant in the case.

The resolution was passed after the board met in executive session with Garret Graves, the head of the state coastal restoration authority and a harsh critic of the suit.

Sure, the Flood Protection Authority’s move was an olive branch and offers the chance of further movement. But given the statements made by the authority board members and Graves before and after the meeting, it would take a major change in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s political philosophy for the suit to end soon or in favor of the authority.

There was much discussion among board members during and after the meeting about what the resolution means. They said “procedural” issues in the suit — such as briefs arguing whether the case belongs in state or federal court — would not be halted.

But it’s unclear what they meant by “substantive portion.” Does that include discovery and depositions? No one could say for sure.

More importantly, Barry, now acting as president on this issue because of Doody’s recusal, made several points clear in an interview:

Nothing will stop until he sees the administration make a “good faith” effort to bring the oil and gas industry to the table to discuss repairs and damages.

“And it would have to be in a significant way — not offering, say, $5 million,” Barry said. “It would have to be serious.”

That’s because, Barry said, the underlying reason for the suit has not changed: Neither the board nor the state has the tens of billions of dollars needed to keep the New Orleans area safe from hurricanes as seas continue to rise and the land continues to sink.

“We have never said the industry should pay for that entire cost,” Barry said. “But we do believe they should pay for the cost resulting from the damage they caused that has increased our vulnerability. And they have the money to do that.”

In short, the board simply reiterated what it has said all along: The suit is a way to get the oil and gas industry to pay; if it wants to do that out of court, all the better.

“If we determine this is just a delaying tactic, we won’t stop anything,” Barry said.

And judging by comments Graves made later, nothing appears to have changed from the state’s point of view. He has said the lawsuit threatens the state’s Master Plan for coastal restoration; the board had usurped the authority of the governor and Legislature by unilaterally filing suit; and it jeopardizes current and future agreements with oil companies on restoration projects.

Graves told The Advocate that if the Flood Protection Authority’s resolution “is an attempt to dictate to the state how this will proceed then no, the tail’s not going to wag the dog. If this is an olive branch to have a more constructive discussion on an appropriate path forward, then we certainly would be willing to have discussions.”

One day earlier, a joint legislative committee suggested that it would rewrite the law regarding nominations as well as the Flood Protection Authority’s ability to file suits without permission of the governor or the Legislature. That could happen as soon as April. Procedural motions in the lawsuit could easily keep it from going to trial before then.

With lawmakers poised to act, Jindal probably will feel no pressure to soften his long-held support of the oil industry and staunch opposition to lawsuits against them – notwithstanding the state’s lawsuit against BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Many coastal advocates who agree with the aim of the suit have hoped that it would give even this pro-oil governor cover to make an offer to the industry: Agree to higher taxes on your local production and transmission, which would provide the state with long-term funding for restoration, and we’ll pass a law absolving you from these suits in the future.

Even U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, another strong booster of oil and gas, chose to let the oil industry know she wasn’t rushing to its support, saying after the lawsuit was filed: “I think we should seek justice everywhere we can find it . … In Baton Rouge, in Washington and in the courts, we must continue to try and keep our people above water and keep our communities from drowning.”

Jindal has never even hinted at such a position, and there’s little chance that the board’s olive branch will change that.

So the courts and the Legislature remain the determining actors in this drama.

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...