State Lawmakers Defend Oil and Gas Industry by Passing SB 469

Wetlands sliced by oil canal St. Bernard Parish

The wetlands that defend coastal Louisiana - including the city of New Orleans -from storm surge are disappearing at an alarming rate. For decades these wetlands have been carved up by oil and gas activities such as dredging canals for navigation and to lay pipelines. A study conducted by the USGS concluded that between 1932 and 1990 Oil and Gas activities accounted for 249,152 acres – or over 36 percent of the total land loss experienced in coastal Louisiana during that period. The oil industry itself had recognized their role in coastal land loss prior to a groundbreaking lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies. Like many in the GreenARMY, I was pleased to see the oil and gas industry held accountable to fix the portion of the coast that they damaged. Unfortunately, this lawsuit has been undermined by the unholy union of the oil and gas industry to Louisiana’s Legislators.

After Hurricane Katrina, over 80 percent of Louisiana residents voted to establish Flood Protection Authorities in place of inadequate levee boards. Voters established these Authorities under the premises that they would be politically independent in performing their duties to protect the people and property of Southeast Louisiana from flooding and storm surge. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East acknowledged there are other causes of coastal land loss including natural factors such as erosion, subsidence, and salt water intrusion as well as the levee system the Army Corps of Engineers created around the Mississippi River and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. This is why former SLFPA-E Vice President and champion for the lawsuit John Barry has repeatedly stated, "We don't blame the oil and gas industry for all of the land loss, we do say they are responsible for some of the land loss. We're just asking them to pay for the part that they're responsible for."  Since the wetlands which served as a natural buffer zone have been largely depleted, the Flood Protection Authority will need to build stronger levees for defense from future flooding. Not only will levee defenses need to be stronger, but the state of Louisiana has also set a 50 Billion dollar price tag on an essential, but currently unfunded, coastal restoration Master Plan. This lawsuit does not conflict with the Master Plan – it helps pay for it! Killing the lawsuit would be a bail out for Big Oil by forcing tax payers to fund necessary coastal restoration.

The lawsuit filed by this regional Flood Authority seeking payment for the portion of coastal land loss caused by oil and gas activities was immediately challenged in court by oil and gas trade group the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. According to the Advocate, a judge ruled that the Flood Authority had properly filed their lawsuit, and that “Attorney General Buddy Caldwell acted within his legal authority when he approved a resolution that allowed the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East to move forward with hiring outside attorneys for a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry. Despite this court decision, many lawmakers in both chambers in the Capitol continue to argue this lawsuit was never properly filed. Several attempts to derail the bill have resulted in one piece of legislation which has actually made it through both the House and Senate and recently passed a final vote on concurrence earlier this morning. This is the horrible legislation known as Senate Bill 469 – Authored by Senators Allain and Adley with the intentions of retroactively amending existing state laws in order to derail this lawsuit. One of the representatives who defends SB 469, Nicholas J. Lorusso from District 94 (which represents most of the Lakeview area of New Orleans which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina) recently replied to my numerous pleas that he vote no on SB 469 with a letter stating his support for the legislation on this premise, “As a subdivision of the state, the SLFPA-E Board did not have the authority to hire counsel and file a lawsuit. Specifically, pursuant to the Coastal Zone Management Act, SLFPA-E is not one of the enumerated entities granted the capacity to file such a law suit.” Although this lawsuit was indeed filed properly, the unintended consequences associated with SB 469 are amending the Coastal Zone Management Act and potentially losing federal funding for coastal protection.

Since this lawsuit was properly filed according to a judge – a simple lesson in Civics reminds us the political doctrine of separation of powers indicates this should be settled by the judicial branch of government meaning the lawsuit would be argued in a court of law and not blocked by the Governor or legislature. According to the United States Constitution the legislative, judicial, and executive branches are kept distinct in order to prevent abuse of powers – but Louisiana’s lawmakers have destabilized this important balance of power through numerous (17) attempts to stop the lawsuit through retroactive legislation. There has been compelling testimony by some legislators who prefer to see the outcome of the lawsuit settled through the judicial system. After the debate I insist that the justifications for SB 469 belong as arguments made by oil and gas industry company attorneys in a court of law, not in a House Committee chamber.

The retroactive part of this bill is aimed at killing the Flood Protection lawsuit. The House passed this bill Thursday evening with a final vote of 59 in favor and 39 opposed and 6 absent. The Senate voted for concurrence since it was amended by the House – and this Bill will soon land on the desk of Governor Bobby Jindal. We know the Representatives and the Senators who passed SB 469 value their relationship to the oil and gas industry more than they value Louisiana’s residents being protected from flooding and coastal land loss (several out of touch lawmakers from coastal parishes supported SB 469). Now that SB 469 has passed through the legislature the question remains – will Governor Jindal sign this bad legislation into law? According to a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times by Lt. General Russel Honore (retired), “After decades of watching our state being ravaged to support the nation’s oil and gas addiction, the people of Louisiana have had enough.” If Bobby Jindal wants to improve his approval ratings he should side with the people of Louisiana and veto SB 469 before this bad legislation becomes bad law. I agree with John Barry, “I don’t believe any person or corporation is above the law. That’s what this fight is about. Big Oil broke our coast and must fix it. Our state officials have to get out of the way.” The choice remains for Governor Jindal – protect the people and property of Louisiana – or ignore the separation of powers, and enact a retroactive law in order to stop a lawsuit from going to court in order to protect the oil and gas industry from paying to fix the part of the coast they broke!

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