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GOING COASTAL In an effort to force Big Oil to pay its share for coastal restoration, the Edwards administration definitely isn’t mailing it in.

by Mike Stagg

In an effort to force Big Oil to pay its share for coastal restoration, the Edwards administration definitely isn't mailing it in.

John Bel Edwards is not the first Louisiana governor to acknowledge that oil and gas operations in and off the state’s coast have exacted a toll on it. But he is the first governor to demand that the oil and gas industry pay to repair its damage and share in the cost of restoring the coast. Edwards’ position has ignited a bitter political fight before the legal battle he seeks has begun in earnest.

Attorneys Richard Broussard of Lafayette, left, and Don Carmouche of Baton Rouge head the legal team directing the Vermilion Parish lawsuit against oil and gas companies for wetlands loss. The suit is based on the Coastal Zone Management Act; the inset explains the basis for District Attorney Keith Stutes’ decision to file the suit.
Photo by Robin May

Edwards’ intent is clear. He wants the oil and gas industry to help pay for coastal restoration and protection in Louisiana. He believes it has a legal and moral obligation to do so. He is pursuing what he has called a global settlement of wetlands loss claims with the industry, particularly the majors — ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and CITGO — to help pay for the state’s ambitious but badly underfunded Coastal Master Plan. The official price tag of the 2012 version of the plan was $50 billion over 50 years.

Mark Davis of Tulane’s Institute on Water Resources Law & Policy, in a November 2015 report, pegged the actual cost of the 2012 plan at $91 billion and said the state was $71 billion short of covering those costs, even including new revenue streams from the BP settlement and federal offshore revenue sharing.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is finalizing the 2017 version of the master plan. In a meeting in Terrebonne Parish last week, CPRA representatives said that $160 billion in projects are under consideration in the new plan, but that the CPRA would only recommend funding for about $50 billion of those. Some projects will be left out. That means some communities will, too.

Bren Haase, CPRA’s chief of planning and research, said in a radio interview earlier this year that the budget constraints are real and that, “as a state, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”

The price tag for coastal restoration is rising rapidly as scientists’ understanding of sea level rise is improving. Haase said that the 2017 plan will be based on sea level rise projections of up to six feet in the next 50 years — a significantly higher rate of increase than was forecast in 2012. With wetlands loss accelerating along with sea level rise, it is clear that $50 billion is not enough money to save large swaths of South Louisiana.

That’s why Edwards has turned to the oil and gas industry.

Prior to Edwards’ election, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes had separately filed suits in 2014 against oil and gas companies for coastal wetlands loss in their respective parishes. They acted under the authority given to them under the state’s Coastal Zone Management Plan, a program established in response to the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. Louisiana’s plan was approved by the federal government in 1978. It was developed by Paul Templet, an LSU environmental professor, at the request of Edwin Edwards after one formulated by the Department of Natural Resources had been rejected as too industry friendly.

It covers parts or all of 20 Louisiana parishes: Ascension, Cameron, Calcasieu, Vermilion, Iberia, St. Martin, St. Mary, Terrebonne, Lafourche, Assumption, Tangipahoa, Livingston, St. John, St. James, St. Charles, Jefferson, Plaquemines, Orleans, St. Bernard and St. Tammany.

After Cameron Parish filed a similar suit early this year, Attorney General Jeff Landry moved to intervene in the suits by all three parishes. Landry says he is acting to protect the state’s interests under the Coastal Resources Management Act against what might be viewed as a money grab by the parishes.

This was the first evidence of the jurisdictional brawl that was to emerge.

Under that act, the ability to bring action against alleged violators of Coastal Use Permits falls to “the secretary of [the Department of Natural Resources], the attorney general, an appropriate district attorney, or a local government with an approved program.”

DA Keith Stutes' lawsuit in Vermilion Parish focuses on oil and gas activities and wetlands loss in the areas highlighted in this satellite image.

Cameron, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes are among the 10 parishes in Louisiana’s Coastal Zone that have implemented Local Coastal Plans (the others are:

Calcasieu, Lafourche, Orleans, St. Bernard, St. James, St. Tammany and Terrebonne). It is not clear how Landry could force them out of their suits; their Local Coastal Plans give them legal standing.

Edwards’ distrust of Landry led him to use DNR as the vehicle to intervene in those lawsuits and to hire private attorneys to represent his office in those suits. That decision led to another squabble with Landry over the hiring of the attorneys, which then led to an ongoing skirmish over how they could be paid.

In May, Edwards invited Chris John of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and Don Briggs of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association to meet with him to discuss the possibility of the state reaching a negotiated settlement with the industry as a means of helping fund the state’s coastal restoration efforts. In a May 13 letter to Edwards following their meeting, Briggs and John rejected negotiations: “Instead, the Governor intends to have the oil & gas industry fund some percentage of an undetermined restoration plan without a finding of a single violation of a Coastal Use Permit. The messages in today’s meeting were discouraging and disappointing. It is evident that the state is seeking to move us into an area of discussion that is impossible. It is also apparent that the state is seeking to hold the oil & gas industry accountable for a substantial amount of damages without making any effort to establish liability.”

For Edwards, a lawyer, lawsuits are the American way of establishing liability.

Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes’ July 28 suit against oil and gas companies in Vermilion Parish rocked the state. Stutes is a Republican, which disrupts the partisan angle that the industry’s defenders have sought to use. The Vermilion Parish Police Jury came out against the suit, but its opinion has no legal standing because the parish has no Local Coastal Plan.

In September, St. Bernard Parish filed its lawsuit.

Edwards wrote the leaders of the 20 parishes in the Coastal Zone, urging them to file suits. He promised that if they sued oil and gas companies, the state would join them. He vowed that if they did not sue, the state would proceed without them, which means those parishes miss out on any money recovered because it would be divvied among the state and parishes that did file suit. It appears that Landry and Edwards intend to be in every coastal zone suit filed. If Edwards keeps his word, there will be 20 of them.

The state’s leverage in these suits was evident to Lafourche Parish President Jimmy Cantrelle who, in July, urged his parish council to hire outside counsel to represent it in any lawsuits that might be filed against oil and gas companies for wetlands damage there. He explained that the parish had no intention of suing but needed to have its interests represented in the event the state did. Cantrelle acted on the advice of AG Landry.

Cantrelle and Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove met with Edwards on Sept. 30 to discuss the coastal lawsuits. Dove wrote a letter to Edwards, which Cantrelle also signed, declaring that Terrebonne Parish would not file suit against oil and gas companies for coastal damage.

Coastal wetlands loss is not a theoretical discussion in Terrebonne Parish. The Native Americans living on Isle de Jean Charles in the southwestern part of the parish have been declared North America’s first climate refugees. The processes replacing land or marsh with open water are at work across southern Terrebonne. Parts of Lafourche Parish outside the levee protection area are washing away. The state and federal government have already invested several hundred million dollars in an elevated roadway that runs from Leeville to Port Fourchon. Another several hundred million will be needed to complete it back into the protective levee at Golden Meadow. The lower stretch of LA 1 from Golden Meadow south will be written off, as will Leeville.

Neither LOGA nor the Mid- Continent Oil and Gas Association’s Chris John responded to interview requests for this story.

LOGA’s Don Briggs, before he was severely injured on Sept. 30 in a fall down a stairway in North Carolina, wrote that Edwards’ coastal litigation would create a de-facto moratorium on drilling. The attempt to link the legal fights to the successful 2010 public relations campaign was not accidental.

“Just as we did in the aftermath of the [sic] Obama’s drilling moratorium, we should come together and rally against Edwards’ de-factor [sic] moratorium that will result from this unnecessary litigation,” Briggs wrote. “We must protect Louisiana’s oil and gas industry and the families who depend on these well paying jobs, before it is too late.”

But things have changed since 2010. The success of the anti-moratorium campaign was based on tight cooperation between industry and state government. Bobby Jindal served as lead critic of the moratorium while Scott Angelle was the industry’s cheerleader.

Nothing reflects the scope of change more than the fact that DNR — once the industry toehold in state government — is now being used by Edwards to pursue his legal strategy against it.

At the end of the day, the issue at stake is the survival of South Louisiana and the cultures that have developed around its relationship with its coast. Edwards believes he can win federal support for some share of coastal restoration, but only if the state can show Washington that it is doing every- thing it can to help itself. That includes getting the oil and gas industry to help taxpayers share the burden of the work.

Oil and gas leaders have not answered this question: If the industry will not pay its share of rebuilding Louisiana’s coast, what is its alternative?

A freelance journalist living in Lafayette, Mike Stagg hosts “Where The Alligators Roam,” a talk show airing on Sundays at 5 p.m. on KPEL 96.5 FM. He’s also a documentarian and researcher and is currently working on a book about the oil and gas industry’s relationship with Louisiana government.

Oil and gas activities were, over time, governed by rules promulgated by the state (the state's salt water disposal rule is shown below). The Coastal Zone Program, enacted under the authority of the federal Coastal Zone Act, gave standing to state and local officials to bring claims against suspected violators of permits (top).