How Big Oil staged a coup in Baton Rouge


This weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy — and rather remarkable — look at what happened when a New Orleans levee board decided to take seriously its mission of restoring the Louisiana environment to its original health. If you’ve been reading this blog, the story of New Orleans historian John Barry, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (also known as Slfpa-E), and Big Oil’s effort to quash its lawsuit against 97 energy companies that have failed to restore the state’s coastal wetlands is a familiar tale.

But given room to report and write, the piece by writer Nathaniel Rich accomplishes several key things. First of all, it exposes a new national audience to the severity of the wetlands crisis facing the Louisiana coast, and the critical contribution that the oil companies have made to that crisis. Here’s an excerpt from the article, which is prosaically headlined: “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”:

Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence. The industry has also incised 10,000 linear miles of pipelines, which connect the wells to processing facilities; and canals, which allow ships to enter the marsh from the sea. Over time, as seawater eats away at the roots of the adjacent marsh, the canals expand. By its own estimate, the oil and gas industry concedes that it has caused 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana. (The Interior Department has placed the industry’s liability as low as 15 percent and as high as 59 percent.) A better analogy than disappearing football fields has been proposed by the historian John M. Barry, who has lived in the French Quarter on and off since 1972. Barry likens the marsh to a block of ice. The reduction of sediment in the Mississippi, the construction of levees and the oil and gas wells “created a situation akin to taking the block of ice out of the freezer, so it begins to melt.” Dredging canals and pipelines “is akin to stabbing that block of ice with an ice pick.”

The oil and gas industry has extracted about $470 billion in natural resources from the state in the last two decades, with the tacit blessing of the federal and state governments and without significant opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas is, after all, Louisiana’s leading industry, responsible for around a billion dollars in annual tax revenue. Last year, industry executives had reason to be surprised, then, when they were asked to pay damages. The request came in the form of the most ambitious, wide-ranging environmental lawsuit in the history of the United States.

To me, the truly eye-opening part of the article addresses the politics of the lawsuit — the fate of which is still very much up in the air. That includes the fecklessness of Louisiana governor and presidential wannabe Bobby Jindal, who seems perfectly content to defy the will of his constituents to doing the bidding of the giant oil and gas companies. It also spotlights the shameless efforts by lobbyists for BP (and others) to sway a handful of reluctant lawmakers who were wavering in their commitment to Big Energy.

Again, from the article:

Louisiana grants its governor more powers than nearly any other state in the nation. One is the ability to veto any project in the state’s operating budget. During the final days of the legislative session, Barry watched helplessly as legislators who had pledged support for the lawsuit seemed to mysteriously change their minds. According to one pro-lawsuit lobbyist, Representative Gene Reynolds, a Democrat from Minden, told him that funding for a new roof for a V.F.W. hall in his district would be eliminated if he didn’t support a bill against the lawsuit. (Reynolds disputes this account. “My vote was based on information from my district,” he wrote in an email, “which depends heavily on oil and gas and the related benefits.”) Another pro-lawsuit strategist claimed that Senator David Heitmeier, a Democrat from Algiers who is an optometrist, had pledged his support for the lawsuit. When the time for the vote came, however, Heitmeier opposed the suit; a week later, Jindal signed a bill allowing optometrists to perform some minor eye surgeries — a pet cause of Heitmeier’s. (Heitmeier did not respond to repeated queries.)

While this was going on, oil executives with local political influence showed up in the legislative chambers “to watch, to be muscle,” as the lobbyist put it. The Houma delegation was visited by a senior BP lobbyist. Although Houma is the seat of Terrebonne Parish, one of the most endangered of the coastal parishes, all of its legislators emerged from their conversations in favor of the bill. “You could feel the weight coming down,” Barry said. “You could see them getting peeled off one at a time, through threats or promises. It was disheartening.”

 To really grasp the shocking full extent of the effort to kill the lawsuit, and of Jindal’s betrayal of the public interest, it’s necessary to read the entire piece. It’s clear that, at the end of the day, Big Oil has reasserted its authority to call the shots in Baton Rouge, and that’s surely “disheartening,” to borrow Barry’s term. But there’s also reason to have hope. First of all, Barry’s efforts and the levee board’s lawsuit remain an unprecedented effort on behalf of Louisiana’s environment, and the journey of 1,000 miles always begins with that first step.

But also, I want to call your attention to another national article that appeared this weekend in The Nation magazine. Although the article bemoans the influence by the oil industry on both major candidates in the current Louisiana Senate race, it also notes the public seems finally fed up with the old ways.

From the Nation article:

What happened in Bayou Corne was one of many events that led to the formation of the Green Army, an unprecedented coalition of green and religious groups working to upend the political dominance of the petrochemical interests. The Green Army is led by Russel Honoré, a charismatic, brusque retired Army general who earned celebrity status for taking charge of the disastrous federal response after Hurricane Katrina.

One of the campaigns undertaken by the Green Army is an anti-fracking movement in St. Tammany Parish, a wealthy, conservative district on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain. Helis Energy plans to drill at least one fracking well there soon, and it obtained the rights to lease some 60,000 acres in the parish. Concerned citizens swarmed parish-council meetings, and the parish government is now suing to prevent the state Department of Natural Resources—widely criticized for acting as a subsidiary of oil and gas interests—from approving the project.

Some of the opposition is based on the preservation of personal property, not outright environmentalism, but it’s still notable in a state where oil and gas companies are used to getting everything they ask for.

Notable, indeed. Just the fact that the national media is taking notice, in a dramatic way, of our environmental movement here in Louisiana is a big win for activism. It gives me great hope going into 2015.

Check out the New York Times Magazine on “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”:

To read the entire article in The Nation, use this link:

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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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