The political pressure on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) keeps ramping up in the wake of the regional levee board's decision to sue 97 energy companies for damaging Louisiana's coastal wetlands. First it was Gov. Bobby Jindal and his coastal czar, Garret Graves. Now some lawmakers are weighing in.
This Wednesday, Aug. 14, SLFPA-E commissioners will appear before a joint gathering of the state House and Senate committees on Transportation, Highways and Public Works. Those committees deal with legislation affecting levee boards, among other matters. The local commissioners will appear before a panel chaired by state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who has been in the oil and gas business for four decades. No doubt they'll get a fair hearing before they hang.
Adley has said he has an open mind about the suit. If that's true, he stands alone among the nation's oilmen. Then again, he also has said he is concerned about whether a levee board has standing to sue an oil company. Now that sounds like an oilman. If the energy companies had their way — and they often do in Louisiana — no one would have standing to sue them.
This week's joint committee hearing is just the beginning. As the industry defendants prepare their legal arguments in anticipation of a protracted courtroom battle, political pressure from the other two branches of Louisiana government will factor heavily into their strategy. For now, the energy defendants need to buy some time, which is a common tactic in civil suits.
It won't be difficult for the defendants to stretch things out till March 10, 2014, when lawmakers next convene. That's less than seven months. Between now and then, look for Jindal, Graves and other energy industry allies in the political arena to heap as much criticism as possible on the suit and the commissioners.
The defense strategy is entirely predictable — and less than intellectually honest. The most common ploy is the repeated use of misinformation and misdirection. Jindal already has employed it to full effect by criticizing the lawsuit as an attempt to place all responsibility for coastal land loss at the feet of the energy industry. The lawsuit does nothing of the kind. In fact, every public utterance about the suit by SLFPA-E board vice chair John Barry (author of Rising Tide and one of the nation's leading experts on flooding) includes a statement that the energy industry did not cause this problem all by itself.
But it takes a lot longer to set the record straight than to distort it. Truth is, every reputable expert agrees that the energy industry's development of leases along the coast contributed substantially — though not exclusively — to wetland loss. Mother Nature also has played a big part, as has the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which leveed the Mississippi River to control flooding — and in the process deprived coastal marshes of the sediments that built and sustained them.
It's equally true that the feds and taxpayers have contributed mightily to coastal restoration and flood control efforts. The feds, through the Corps and other agencies, have poured billions into flood protection and wetlands restoration. The oil industry, not so much. Lead plaintiff's counsel Glad Jones puts it this way, "When it comes to paying for coastal land loss and the dramatically increased cost of flood protection that results from coastal land loss, the score is feds, $16 billion-plus; the oil and gas industry, zero."
But all that takes a lot more effort than simply saying the suit is an attempt to blame oil and gas companies — which have paid millions in taxes, employed hundreds of thousands of citizens and increased commerce across Louisiana — for all land loss.
The defendants have a legitimate story to tell. They have many valid legal arguments on their side. They don't have to resort to intellectual dishonesty and political hegemony.
But it's so much easier than truth.