May 29, 2014 01:36 PM

This week the Louisiana House of Representatives will vote on whether to protect the lives, property and habitat of half the state's population that lives in its coastal parishes.

This week the Louisiana House of Representatives will vote on whether to protect the lives, property and habitat of half the state's population that lives in its coastal parishes, or grant legal immunity to the oil and gas industry for decades of non-compliance with state law and permits. The juxtaposition should disturb most Americans, but Governor Bobby Jindal and his legislative allies believe that shielding Big Oil's privilege trumps the constitutional rights and indeed, the very survival, of the citizens they allege to represent. Let me explain.

John Barry  

Since the oil and gas industry began drilling in our marshes, state law has consistently and over time more explicitly required that exploration and drilling activities be mindful of habitat destruction since the wetlands are our single most effective barrier to hurricane storm surge and flooding. Concurrent with the industry's 80-year presence in coastal Louisiana is a cumulative and ongoing loss of 2,000 square miles of deltaic wetlands - imagine Delaware dissolving. According to scientific and industry studies, much of that loss is directly attributable to the 10,000 miles of canals that have shredded the marsh, thereby allowing saltwater to penetrate, choke vegetation holding the land together and render it open water. Louisiana law requires that drilling sites and canals be restored to a condition "as nearly as is practicable" upon abandonment, but the industry has flagrantly ignored the directive. Most egregiously, state officials have looked the other way, while quietly spending several hundred million taxpayer dollars to remediate the worst damage.

The legislature is in this predicament because last summer, one of the metropolitan New Orleans levee boards, which I served as vice president, filed an unprecedented lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies for long-term coastal land loss. We sued not because the industry has deep pockets and we have an expensive problem to solve, but because it has a long, well-documented record of breaking the law, the dire consequences of which leave the survival of coastal Louisiana and the city of New Orleans in doubt. Governor Jindal retaliated by blocking my renomination to the board. And when the legislature convened in March, his allies had a slate of 17 bills ready to kill the lawsuit and eliminate the board's constitutionally mandated independence.  

It's been a slog, but we've successfully neutralized all but the most lethal, Senate Bill 469, which passed the state senate on May 7 and will be taken up by the house this Thursday. The bill exposes the hubris of the governor, the industry and their legislative allies by declaring the levee board's lawsuit retroactively null and void, and dismissing it with prejudice so that it can never be filed again. Our state Attorney General had previously certified the suit (as current law requires) and a district court judge upheld his ruling, but the bill's authors allege that both opinions misinterpreted the law, requiring 469 to clarify that the levee authority never had the right to sue - a patent untruth. The bill also allows the Governor's appointees the right to allow (or not) any future course of action against the industry.

Supporters of 469 prey on the anxieties of workers and communities by insisting the industry will leave Louisiana if the suit proceeds, and yet we are in a boom that outpaces the availability of skilled labor. When deposed under oath, the president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association admitted that he could not name a single company that has ever left the state or plans to because of litigation.

Everyone knows our coast is disappearing but our officials prefer lip service to responsible action. In 2012, this same legislature unanimously adopted an unfunded Master Plan that calls for a minimum investment of $50 billion to stave off disaster, while acknowledging that $100 billion is what the job actually requires. These are massive sums. They cannot be wrung from Louisiana's taxpayers. Why should the most profitable industry in world history - which has contributed significantly to our endangerment - be granted immunity?

I don't believe any person or corporation is above the law. That's what this fight is about. Big Oil broke our coast and must fix it. Our state officials have to get out of the way.

John Barry is a prize-winning author and president of Restore Louisiana Now.  He lives in New Orleans.


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