A much-needed first step toward saving Louisiana’s wetlands


My native state of Louisiana seems to lead the nation in environmental disasters – both the unseen, slow-motion variety (like the state’s notorious “Cancer Alley,” where low-income residents drink and breathe the toxins from a miles-long wall of petrochemical plants) and the more dramatic kind like 2010’s BP Deepwater Horizon explosion, which caused the worst offshore oil spill in American history.

Still, nothing seems to epitomize both the promise and the peril of life in the state that bills itself a “Sportsman’s Paradise” than the tragedy of the Louisiana wetlands, which not only form its natural buffer against hurricanes — an important thing to have in this era of supersized storms like the ones that have swamped neighboring Texas every year or two — but are the breeding ground for the crawfish gumbo you’ll be eating on your next New Orleans vacation.

But you’ve probably heard this: Louisiana’s wetlands are disappearing at an astonishing rate – several high school football fields worth every day, until the lost swamps and marshes in less than a century have equaled the size of the state of Delaware — and the losses are accelerating. The causes of this environmental catastrophe are many, including overdevelopment and, more recently, the rising sea levels in the Gulf.

But few would dispute that industrial activity in the wetlands – specifically, extensive drilling and transportation by Big Oil and Gas firms that typically have increased the damage by carving out large canals – has played an outsized role, often in tandem with the out-of-all-proportion power and influence that their lobbyists have in Baton Rouge.

That’s why it was a breath of fresh air a couple of years ago when — told by environmental experts that wetlands could be restored but that the cost of their master plan would be an astronomical $50 billion == some governmental entities sought justice in the courts. Noting that these wealthy oil-and-gas companies were required by law to restore these wetlands after their extraction work was done, several parishes in the New Orleans region and a key levee board filed a lawsuit against nearly 100 of them, seeking billions of dollars in damages.

What happened next shows why elections matter. In 2015, then-GOP governor Bobby Jindal – who was getting ready to launch a disastrous presidential campaign and looking toward big-money donors – and Louisiana lawmakers teamed up on legislation that was intended to nip these lawsuits in the bud. That same year, however, voters chose a somewhat more environmentally friendly governor in Democrat John Bel Edwards.

When Edwards took office in 2016, he said he supported lawsuits that were underway in four parishes (now it’s up to six) and threatened that the state might file its own lawsuit. Clearly the pendulum had swung, and now that legal pressure is starting to hit paydirt.

This week, one of the lesser known outfits among those 100 energy firms — the global mining firm Freeport McMoRan — finally answered for its destruction of wetlands in violation of Louisiana’s conservation laws and agreed to a sizable settlement of $100 million, to be paid out over time in an as-yet-to-be-determined combination of cash and environmental restoration credits.

Freeport McMoRan is the very first of the companies that were sued six years ago to settle, and the action bodes well for the future of legal efforts to make Big Oil and Gas pay for all the damage that they’ve caused. It’s true that $100 million is just a fraction of the dollars needed to fully fund the $50 billion restoration plan, but advocates note that Freeport McMoRan only caused about 4 percent of the environmental disruption.

The cases are still moving forward against some of the largest and best-known energy companies in the world – big names like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and BP – that not only caused more carnage but also possess deeper pockets. Thus, the Freeport McMoRan sets the stage for a windfall of billions that are badly needed as climate change ravages my home state.  The company said in a statement that it decided to economically support wetlands restoration as “a creative solution rather than continue to engage in years of litigation.”

“It’s a big deal,” John Carmouche, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, told NOLA.com. “We have been fighting for five years, and an oil company has finally validated the claims and is willing to be involved in a business solution to solve the real and provable damages caused by the oil companies. And there’s a lot more to come.” 

Let’s certainly hope so. The government in in Baton Rouge isn’t the only thing that’s changed since the original lawsuit was filed in 2013. So, too, has the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to start adding to Louisiana’s wetlands and stop subtracting from them. The settlement with Freeport McMoRan is a small step in the right direction, but hopefully a sign of much bigger steps to come.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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