Timid Litigation that Shields Big Oil Won’t Begin to Pay for Coastal Reclamation

thelensnola.org
By , Opinion writer

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.