It’s time for Louisiana’s oil companies to pay up

Elections matter. That was especially true last fall in Louisiana, when voters went to the polls to elect a replacement for the term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal (who, if you’ll remember, had the audacity to be running for president at that time). It’s pretty hard to make a case that Jindal wasn’t one of the worst governors in the modern history of the state; Louisiana’s budget was left in shambles, and major government services such as education remain grossly underfunded.

Some of the worst damage from the Jindal administration came on environmental policy. As you probably recall if you follow Louisiana politics, one of the levee boards here in New Orleans filed a lawsuit against scores of oil and natural gas companies that have operated in the coastal waters of the state for decades. The legal action seeks billions of dollars to cover promises that the energy companies made — to restore the extensive damages that they caused to the marshy wetlands that are the region’s main line of defense against hurricanes.

You’d think the cash-strapped state would have signed onto this restoration plan — but Jindal and a majority of lawmakers preferred to do the bidding of their Big Oil and Gas donors instead. The governor tried to replace the biggest “troublemakers” on the levee board with his allies, and he signed legislation that sponsors had hoped would off kill the board’s lawsuit to restore the wetlands.

The suit has, nonetheless, continued to limp its way through the court. In November, the state elected a new Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, with a very different approach to the case. The new governor wants Big Oil to pay up:

NEW ORLEANS –Gov. John Bel Edwards is pushing to get the oil and natural gas industries to pay for restoring Louisiana’s fragile coast by encouraging them to settle lawsuits alleging they caused extensive damage to coastal lands.

The governor met with industry leaders and company executives on May 13 and asked them to settle the numerous lawsuits, filed by local governments, and help pay for coastal restoration, according to letters obtained by The Associated Press on Friday.

Industry leaders have rejected his request. But, the governor, in a letter sent to industry organizations on Thursday, said he wanted to meet with them again to discuss settlements.

The oil industry executives and lobbyists aren’t taking this very well:

“It is evident that the state is seeking to move us into an area of discussion that is impossible,” said a letter from Chris John, president of Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, and Don Briggs, president of Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

The letter said the state was seeking to hold the oil and gas industry “accountable for a substantial amount of damages without making any effort to establish liability.”

At issue are claims that oil and gas companies violated their permits by failing to fix damage caused by oil drilling, such as digging thousands of miles of canals that scientists say led to salt water intrusion and land loss. The oil industry disputes that contention and argues permits were not violated.

Let’s be clear: The oil companies have no case. They made an ironclad promise to repair the damage that they caused to the wetlands — and unfortunately that damage is considerable. The oil-and-gas activity is one of the key reasons that Louisiana has lost an appalling amount of its wetlands since drilling began in the early 20th Century. Gov. Edwards is right to be pushing this matter so aggressively.

This wouldn’t even be happening if Republicans had won last fall’s election in Louisiana. That’s something to ponder as Americans get ready to go to the polls in an even bigger election this fall. The future of wetlands restoration,or regulating the fracking industry, or even global warming and the fate of the planet, can swing on a very small number of votes.

Read more about the push for a settlement of the Louisiana oil and gas lawsuit from the Associated Press: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/article78905402.html

Learn more about the long battle for environmental justice in Louisiana and the Deep South in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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