Louisiana flood-control agency sues oil and gas firms, seeking wetland restoration

The board that oversees the levees in the New Orleans region filed suit in state court Wednesday against about 100 leading oil and gas companies, asking that they repair damage done by the industry’s network of access roads and pipeline canals, which has contributed to the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands a year since the 1930s.

But by the end of the day, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority had overstepped its purview, and he demanded that it cancel contracts with the four law firms that had agreed to handle the case on a contingency basis.

In the suit, the flood authority asks the oil and gas companies to restore the wetlands, which once acted as essential buffers against storms. Without them, the authority said, too much pressure is placed on its levees, which were designed as protection against Mississippi River floods, not as bulwarks against the Gulf of Mexico.

Jindal, however, said the best strategy is to persuade the federal government to share more of its royalties with states to finance restoration projects.

The flood authority’s lawsuit — and Jindal’s response — mark another chapter in a state where politics and oil have been closely entwined for decades. Onshore oil production in Louisiana began in the early 20th century and peaked at 1.35 million barrels a day in 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration, providing the industry with influence.

“For nearly a century, the oil and gas industry has continuously and relentlessly traversed, dredged, drilled and extracted in coastal Louisiana,” the flood protection authority said in its lawsuit. “It reaps enormous financial gain. . . . Yet it also ravages Louisiana’s coastal landscape.”

The agency added that “an extensive network of oil and gas access and pipeline canals slashes the coastline at every angle, functioning as a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction.” It said that the canal network allowed “corrosive saltwater” to flow into interior coastal lands, “killing vegetation and carrying away mountains of soil.”

“What remains of these coastal lands is so seriously diseased that if nothing is done, it will slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner,” the lawsuit asserts.

The cost of restoring Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and reefs isn’t clear, but the sums could easily run well into the billions of dollars, experts estimate. The flood authority is asking the companies to backfill and revegetate canals, and to rebuild shorelines and banks.

The U.S. Geological Survey has cited oil and gas activities as one of the main reasons for coastal land loss. It has estimated that since 1932, Louisiana has lost more than 1,900 square miles of coastal land, enough to cover the state of Delaware.

For half a century, one of the biggest oil companies operating in Louisiana was Texaco, which around 1930 acquired water-covered marsh areas from the state; the company granted small shares of its leases to family members and political associates of the populist politician Huey Long, who was then governor. Long, who later became a U.S. senator, was assassinated in 1935. Texaco was acquired by Chevron in 2001.

The lawsuit’s claims include negligence, strict liability, public nuisance, private nuisance, breach of contract and breach of the natural servitude of drain. It says the companies are obligated to restore coastal land under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, Louisiana’s Civil Code and Louisiana’s Mineral Code, among other state and federal regulations.

Jindal said, however, that the levee agency had usurped his authority and that the suit would enrich trial lawyers. John Barry, vice president of the levee board, said the state’s attorney general approved the contracts with the law firms, which were the only ones with the resources to pursue the case.

Steven Mufson covers the White House. Since joining The Post, he has covered economics, China, foreign policy and energy.
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