Timid litigation that shields Big Oil won’t begin to pay for coastal reclamation

Oil service canals in the Barataria Basin show the ravages of an industry that has given much to Louisiana and taken even more.

Dr. Terry McTigue / NOAA

Oil and gas canals in the Barataria Basin show ravages of an industry that has given much to Louisiana and taken even more.

Suppose the horrendous expense of saving Louisiana’s coast could be made as simple as topping off the gas tank in your car or truck?

Hold that thought.

Two months ago Garret Graves told us that the state must “strategize, prioritize and sequence” its attempts to obtain funds to restore the coast. The chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority didn’t elaborate further on the state’s grand scheme, but made clear that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East’s coastal erosion lawsuit against oil, gas and pipeline companies was not part of the plan.

Yesterday Graves’ coastal panel authorized two lawsuits against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The first aims to remove the state’s $1 billion cost share for repairing environmental damage caused by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). The second would force the corps to pay for millions in levee maintenance along the Algiers Canal.

With all due respect to the state’s strategic priority sequence, there better be more to it than that. Graves has previously argued that the corps’ management of the Mississippi River is the main culprit for the state’s coastal erosion crisis. He minimized the role of canals dredged to suit oil and gas interests, and compared it to “a scrape on a heart-attack patient.” Most significantly, he demanded that the local Flood Protection Authority drop its lawsuit against oil, gas and pipeline interests, because he claimed it interfered with the state’s restoration strategy, which now includes the MR-GO lawsuit.

Graves needs to put more cards on the table.  Spell out these strategic priorities. Justify their “sequence,” and show us a path toward funding the state’s Master Plan to reclaim our coast. We know the state wants to maximize the BP settlement and secure more royalties from offshore oil production. And those are good first steps.

But time is of the essence: The coastal crisis won’t wait, and lawsuits take years to pursue. Further, Graves and his employer, Gov. Bobby Jindal, won’t be in office forever. The public has a right to know their grand strategy for financing the currently unfunded Master Plan, a vision with a price tag generlly estimated at $50 billion.

For example, does the administration endorse the growing number of lawsuits filed by coastal parishes, a wave initiated by the historic suit filed over the summer by our Flood Protection Authority? As the authority’s leadership hoped and predicted the suit has spurred talk of a potential global settlement of coastal damages between the state and Big Oil.

Also: Does the Jindal administration have plans for more lawsuits to hold the corps accountable, beyond the two relatively minor ones authorized on Tuesday? In my estimation, those suits seek about $1 billion in relief. (Contrast that to the “tens of billions” in liability owed by oil and gas companies, according to John Barry, the ousted former Flood Protection Authority vice chairman now serving as president of the nonprofit Restore Louisiana Now.)

These days, politicians of every ideological bent tout the benefits of an “all of the above” approach to domestic energy policy. Until the Jindal administration presents a better funding roadmap, a similarly wide-open attitude towards coastal funding would seem warranted. In other words: It wouldn’t make sense to sue the corps for a billion instead of pursuing a grand bargain with Big Oil that could yield tens of billions. So if these two lawsuits are the extent of the administration’s “sequenced strategy,” please count me out.

Another reason to sue oil and gas firms as well as the corps, instead of one or the other, is the long odds against a payoff. As New Orleans learned the hard way after Hurricane Katrina, when you’re dealing with the corps there are serious issues of legal immunity, and we already know Big Oil will commit vast sums for top-notch legal representation.

Speaking of legal teams, Graves confessed that the coastal authority he heads would bring in outside counsel to help with the MR-GO suit against the corps. Doesn’t that mean — dun dah DUN! — the dreaded prospect of “trial lawyers,” the same fearsome specter Graves railed against all summer as the main reason to oppose the oil and gas lawsuit spearheaded by Barry. (What will we tell the children?) The state will need all the legal firepower it can muster if it wants to prevail against the corps. It’s no easy thing to successfully sue the government for billions.

But that brings us to the main point. Amid all this kerfuffle and back-and-forth, let’s not lose sight of what we’re asking for. Louisiana is trying to find a funding mechanism through which the rest of the country will help us pay to save our coast. Whether we skim more royalty revenues from the federal treasury or sue the corps (or both), we have no choice but to share the immense financial burden of our coastal mega-problem with the rest of the country.

America’s Wetland? It’s not just a catchphrase. Ours is vastly the most delicate and significant coastal ecology in the nation, the source of the preponderance of America’s seafood, not to mention the buffer healthy wetlands provide against another Katrina.

The oil and gas lawsuits — Barry’s and now copycat suits from the parishes — are pieces in the same puzzle. Sure the industry will squeal like a stuck pig at having to invest more to rebuild the coast that supports so much of its infrastructure and workers. But we all know that Big Oil will just pass the additional costs along to motorists.

I asked Barry about this during the announcement of his new organization, and he didn’t dispute that the burden would ultimately fall on the consumer. He figured that, roughly speaking, the additional cost would be negligible. We’re not even talking a cent added to a gallon of of gas. More like one cent more per tank.

And that’s basically what Louisianans have wanted all along — to enlist the rest of the country in helping us save our coast. After the Katrina and Rita wake-up calls, we figured Washington would do right by us and fund large-scale wetlands reclamation projects.

That didn’t happen, and likely never will.

Congress may have failed us but perhaps through these lawsuits Louisiana can finally find a way to force the American taxpayer to cough up a bit more to pay for wetlands protection — whether that payment comes when they file their returns, or fill up their car, or — the optimal solution — both.

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About Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and the Federal Flood he helped create the Rising Tide conference, which grew into an annual social media event dedicated to the future of New Orleans.

  • Chris McLindon

    Graves is partially correct. An objective evaluation of the situation clearly shows that there is a poor correlation between hot spots of wetlands submergence or “land loss” and oil and gas activities. There is a much stronger correlation between the location of these hot spots, where marsh has been converted to open water in recent decades, and the most active areas of natural fault-driven subsidence. The natural processes of subsidence and sea level rise are submerging the delta plain, as they have for millions of years, and there is no contribution of sediment from the River to offset these processes and build new land in southeast Louisiana. Graves’ contention that construction of the levees is responsible for the lack of sediment contribution is incorrect, however. It is also completely natural. If the levees had never been built, the River would have changed course, probably in 1973, and there would be no contribution of sediment in Souutheast Louisiana. The marshes of Plaquemines, Jefferson and St. Bernard would be subsiding below sea level at the rate they are today if humans had never inhabited they area. The problem is that humans did inhabit the area, and we built our infrastructure on this naturally subsiding landscape. Now we are looking for someone else to blame for our mistake.

  • 1NONewsladder2

    Editilla Brotellas~ Jesus fork me and throw away the spoon. Mark my words, this is a feign by Koch Sucker Governorcist Jindal to give the O&G industry time to consolidate their political/legislature opposition to the SLFPA-E Lawsuit. Hard ball. They have no intention of prevailing on their suit against the Corps. No. Another go at MRGO will take DECADES. No, they only want time, and taxpayer money to finish off South Louisiana. Because, without land upon which to stand we will have no States Rights. Y’heard it here first, mark my words.

    I’m stunned @garretgraves could imagine that such a trial-lawyers banquet suing #CorpsofEngineers over #MRGO would give our Koch Sucker Governorcist Bobby Jindal any leverage over our #SLPFAElawsuit! Garret Graves’ hubris is unbound, but the hand of our Governorcist Jindal is truly in’da pocket.

  • Tim

    Great points all.
    We can argue about the science–as we see here in other comments–because for something this grand in scale and complexity it will be a hundred years before we have enough data and understanding of the natural systems to come to full scientific consensus. That’s just how science works: slowly, methodically and with great caution.
    The issue we are dealing with today however is the rotten politics of it all. It is a fact that Bobby Jindal and his completely unqualified coastal czar Garrett Graves are not making decisions based on science or a strategy to help Louisiana in the long term. They are total political creatures who only act for personal gain of money or power (and of course power is cashed in for money so it’s really just one thing). You are spot-on in your critique that the actions of Jindal and Graves make no rational sense. You are spot-on that Graves is just playing games with the people of Louisiana, putting out cute sound bites while Louisiana suffers from the damages caused by an industry that plunders and moves on. Please keep sounding the alarm until enough people are listening and finally understand how Jindal and Graves have abandoned Louisiana.