Wall Street Journal relies on debunked data to make the case for Big Oil on legacy lawsuits


“Louisiana has had its fair share of oil troubles…” Those are the opening words of an editorial that ran in the Wall Street Journal recently, and its hard to disagree with that. While oil exploration and drilling has been a source of jobs and revenue for my home state, it’s also been the source of a lot of unnecessary environmental woe. The Deepwater Horizon spill and the reckless behavior of BP — which the editorial does go on to mention, in passing — is the best-known example of that; Louisianans will be dealing with the consequences of 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico for years and years to come. But what happened in 2010 at the Macondo field was only the tip of the wellhead, if you will; I’ve made a career for more than two decades of fighting Big Oil in numerous cases where the industry has destroyed people’s land and their livelihood with dumping of radioactive or toxic waste or other material.

But if you regularly read Rupert Murdoch’s one-sided, pro-corporate propaganda sheet, you can probably guess that better environmental protection is not where the Wall Street Journal is headed with this. The smear piece entitled “A Bayou Legal Brawl” is a misleading, intellectually dishonest and occasionally dead-wrong defense of Big Oil’s ability to pollute a person’s property for decades and to get off with few if any consequences. The reality of what the oil lobby had been seeking to accomplish this session in the Louisiana Legislature is simple: To shut down the rights of property owners — everyday citizens like you and me — to make sure that Big Oil lives up to its contractual obligation to clean up land that the industry has poisoned for decades with its careless practices.

Some of these toxins and radioactive materials — – including lead, benzene and radioactive radium-226 — have contaminated these parcels of land since the 1950s, but in order to get the oil giants to clean up their mess and fairly compensate property owners, we’ve been forced to go to court. When the oil companies started losing, because in many cases their actions were difficult to defend, the deep-pocketed firms came up with a catchy label — “legacy lawsuits” — and went to their allies to Baton Rouge to stack the deck. That the pro-business Wall Street Journal would support this effort by Big Oil to change the rules in the middle of the game is hardly surprising. Why do these companies (the richest in the world) deserve special legislation to protect them from straight forward breach of contract claims? This is a landlord tenant dispute. Oil companies have been sued since the 1950’s for polluting peoples property, killing and poisoning people’s cows or their crops. It’s as simple as that.

But here is what’s so deeply disappointing about what was once one of America’s great newspapers: It relied on a largely bogus and thoroughly debunked study to make its case that legacy lawsuits have been costing Louisiana jobs and revenue. The study that was published earlier this year by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy — making the ridiculous claim that 30,000 jobs have been lost as the result of these lawsuits — was discredited weeks ago. It was reported that a prominent economist from the University of Oregon found the LSU study was riddled with what he called “rookie errors”; most prominently, it made no mention of the massive hurricanes Katrina and Rita that wreaked havoc with oil production in the Gulf during the period covered by the research. The professor, W. Ed Whitelaw, labelled the report as pure “nonsense” — but that’s now the main underpinning of the Journal’s half-baked argument.

Unfortunately for the citizens of Louisiana, the pro-corporate legislation that was championed by the Wall Street Journal was indeed signed into law this week. It adds a layer of unnecessary bureaucracy by requiring these claims to be shunted through state agencies such as Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, and the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ — agencies that over the years have been completely in the back pocket of Big Oil. That won’t help these regular folks who are the victims of corporate pollution get justice — it will hurt it in many cases — but it will have other consequences; the new procedures will be a boon toward lining the pockets of defense lawyers.

The new law won’t put an end to the quest for environmental justice here in the Gulf Coast — its just means we will have to fight even harder to get it. That’s par for the course in Louisiana. What hurts is when a big newspaper like the Wall Street Journal comes in with bogus data to help make it happen.

To read the Wall Street Journal’s misleading editorial on the issue of legacy lawsuits, go to: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303918204577448483043292946.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_AboveLEFTTop

To check out my April 24 blog post on the debunking of the LSU legacy lawsuit report, go to:  https://www.stuarthsmith.com/legacy-report-lambasted-economist-calls-lsu-analysis-in-support-of-oil-industry-nonsense

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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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