By 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, the chairman looked spent. Garret Graves rubbed his face and said, “I just want to adjourn.” Agenda items remained for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority to consider, but they would be deferred until next meeting.
I couldn’t blame Louisiana’s coastal chief. I was exhausted too. The previous four hours had been thick with intense, sustained debate over the wetlands lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East. The suit seeks to hold oil, gas and pipeline companies responsible for the damage they’ve done to our receding coast.
The highlight of the day was a surprise presentation by flood protection authority lawyers that underscored the basis and aims of the lawsuit, and strongly countered previous criticisms made by Graves.
Now, it’s one thing to skim through the presentation on a computer monitor. It’s another to see it debut on a big screen before a packed room, with high-powered lawyers going through it point by clinical point. Imagine having your words repeatedly thrown back in your face — by professionals. At one juncture, Graves’ fellow board members came to his aid and tried to halt the presentation. They said it amounted to a sustained personal attack. To Graves’ credit, he let the lawyers finish and endured the lambasting in its totality.
But somehow, in between these two heavyweight confrontations, I was scheduled to speak! (See item twelve on the CPRA agenda, where SLFPA-E commissioner Steve Estiponal’s name is listed above mine. The lawyers spoke in his place. Graves’ name is below mine.) How in the heck did that happen?
Well, in a word: Twitter. This tweet in particular set events in motion:
— Mark Moseley (@moseleylensnola) December 19, 2013
Graves responded to the twitter thread that developed, and invited me (and two other tweeters) to share our opinions with him by phone, email or in person at the next CPRA meeting.
So after the holiday break, I emailed Graves to ask him if he could back up his claim that the lawsuit factored into Shell’s decision to halt preliminary plans for a $20 billion gas-to-liquids plant in Louisiana… or anywhere else in North America.
Graves would only reveal that “someone” told him that the lawsuit played a role in the decision. Despite that weak answer, Graves re-invited me to discuss the lawsuit at the CPRA meeting. How could I refuse a second request from “the most powerful unelected public official in Louisiana“?
When Graves said he’d “put me on the agenda,” I assumed he’d merely enter my name under the public comment section of the schedule, so I’d be first to speak in that slot. Well, that’s what I get for assuming. On Monday afternoon, I received a copy of the agenda, and it had my name in the middle of what was anticipated to be the most contentious part of the meeting. I suddenly felt dyspeptic.
“They’ll be expecting a presentation,” a colleague chirped.
On Wednesday, as the meeting unfolded and the debate over the lawsuit approached quasar-intensity, I tried to anticipate how the board and audience would receive the upcoming, twitter-initiated, “Moseley interlude.” Uggh. At best, I figured, they would be baffled; at worst, they’d think I was a time-wasting idiot.
Luckily for me, there was a short break while board members went to a back room to grab some lunch. The tension dissipated a bit, and only about half the board was seated when I was called up to the table.
I thanked the CPRA, praised them for their important work, and stressed that I was speaking for myself only. (The Lens does not take editorial positions on issues.) Then I explained that my appearance before them had originated via social media. No one seemed terribly impressed. So then I told Graves that his vague answer to my follow up email query about the Shell project hadn’t disabused me of my earlier skepticism.
What irked me most about Graves’ comment was that it was an example of a powerful public official going out of his way to blame fellow Louisianians for the loss of an industrial mega-project.* Shell’s decision was based on rising development costs and reduced profit projections, which coincided with a recent decrease in the spread between natural gas prices and oil prices. If the company wanted to signal that the lawsuit was a factor, they could’ve easily inserted a phrase like “current legal climate” in their press release. They did not.
Again, Shell didn’t just pull their gas-to-liquids plans out of Louisiana. They pulled out of North America. But “someone” told our coastal czar that Louisiana is partly at fault for losing out on a $20 billion project, even though no one else was blaming us.
This led me to my next point. Previously, Graves said that anyone who thinks the legislature won’t snuff out the lawsuit in the 2014 session “is living in a dream world.” OK, then.
But if the lawsuit is politically doomed, why is Graves wasting time with all the constant debate and huff and puff? Why isn’t he informing executives that the suit’s demise is inevitable, if he’s being told that the lawsuit is factoring into huge business decisions?
Next, I asked about the CPRA’s funding for the $50 billion coastal master plan. The central premise behind the argument for the suit is that the master plan is drastically unfunded. Graves has previously claimed the suit interferes with the CPRA’s meticulously sequenced strategy to procure funding for restoration work in the Master Plan. That’s great — but where, precisely, is this sequenced strategy laid out so the public can evaluate it?
After I made these points, the board mercifully opted not to grill me with brutal rounds of questions. Instead one member suggested a few books about the coast that I should read. And that was it. They thanked me and I returned to my seat.
Star Chamber this wasn’t. For me, anyway.
* Theoretically, that is. Shell’s plan was always much more tentative than local officials portrayed it.