Finally, Louisiana takes the fight to Big Oil


For a long time, you had to wonder what it would take for environmental protection to finally become “a thing” in the state of Louisiana. After all, my native state has been whacked over the head with a crisis either caused by, or made worse by, its lack of concern for the ecology on more than one occasion. The nightmare and the massive loss of life that was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and the widespread flooding that followed in its wake certainly should have been a wake-up call that the long-term, large-scale disappearance of Louisiana’s wetlands had put everyone at risk.

And yet by the next gubernatorial election, voters turned to a staunch defender of Big Oil and Gas in Bobby Jindal, whose campaign was backed by huge donations from energy executives. It was Jindal who — among other pro-industry moves — signed legislation that was meant to kill the lawsuits that would have made the oil companies pay for decades of illegal destruction of Louisiana marshlands. The next disaster — the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and spill that killed 11 workers and caused massive environmental devastation in the sensitive waters of the Gulf of Mexico — had even more influence on public awareness. But the growing environmental conscientiousness among citizens — highlighted by the so-called “Green Army” of activists led by retired Gen. Russel Honore — still didn’t register in Baton Rouge.

But elections matter.

In January, a new Democratic administration took over in the state capital. And for the first time in decades, Big Oil is on the run:

Louisiana remains the nation’s second-largest crude oil producer and oil refiner after Texas, but the industry has been on the defensive since [John Bel] Edwards, a 49-year-old lawyer and Democrat, ended eight years of Republican leadership last November.

Publicly, he joined a campaign by local governments suing to hold the industry at least partly responsible for Louisiana’s loss of 1,900 square miles of coast since the 1930s. Privately, he pushed for a pre-trial settlement to resolve all their claims. “Our coast is in crisis,” Edwards wrote in a letter to oil executives after their initial meeting in May, calling for an “amicable solution” to avoid years of litigation.

He was soon seconded by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose family of Louisiana Democrats long supported Big Oil. Landrieu accused former state leaders of allowing the industry to cripple “in a generation or two what Mother Nature built in 7,000 years,” and said the damage has spread “through the marsh like an infection.

In July, Vermilion Parish, deep in Louisiana’s “Oil Patch,” became the fourth local government to file claims against Exxon, Shell, Chevron and dozens of other corporations. The agency overseeing flood protection for New Orleans also is suing. Republicans have joined in, from GOP-led parishes to Attorney General Jeff Landry. “It’s absolutely new,” pollster Bernie Pinsonat said. “The oil companies are taking it seriously because you’re talking about billions and billions of dollars.”

These newfound positions are more courageous than they might appear to outsiders. The oil industry has been a major source of both jobs and tax revenue in Louisiana for decades. For blue-collar families out in Bayou Country, finding work on an offshore oil rig was once a dependable route toward a secure middle-class lifestyle. But Louisiana has also learned the hard lessons that the trade-offs of having an oil-and-gas industry that is largely unregulated and unfettered has become a threat to our way of life. It’s been frustrating that it took the state’s elected officials so long to figure this out. But it’s better that environmental awareness takes hold late, than if it had never arrived at all.

Read more about Louisiana’s new tougher stance toward Big Oil from Fuel Fix:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

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

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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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