In June of 2012, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law Acts 754 and 779, both of which were designed to curtail the so-called legacy lawsuits and thereby curbing landowners’ rights to hold oil companies responsible for damages to private property where they had drilled.
Everyone it seemed, especially the oil companies and the Louisiana politicians who were beholden to them, rejoiced. Handshakes and back slapping abounded. Those mean old trial lawyers had finally got their comeuppance. More important, the new legislation would ensure the uninterrupted flow of oil money into the campaign coffers of friendly legislators—and governors.
Even U.S. Sen. David Vitter weighed in on the discussion to sputter that the new laws “will ensure that Louisiana remains a leader in responsibly producing great American energy—AND great American energy jobs.”
But before we cue the brass band and break out the flags and apple pie, consider another very telling part of Vitter’s official statement of Nov. 14, 2012:
“To correct the situation (of legacy lawsuits), the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), and other business groups proposed reforms that were introduced as bills at the start of this past state legislative session.”
That’s right. LOGA and LABI proposed the reforms. Apparently, the input of landowners whose property had been ravaged by drilling operations and left cluttered with abandoned equipment was not needed—or wanted. Vitter, never one to back away from an issue important to his Republican constituency, continued:
“The message began to resonate. As a result, the House voted overwhelmingly—82 to 19 — in support of the strong legislation that LOGA and others helped draft. And momentum grew.
“Within a few short weeks, this led to a so-called compromise on the issue, which was passed and signed into law. But, it’s not just a compromise; it’s a solution, because it included all of the major elements of the strong proposed legislation.”
But as my favorite poet, Bobby Burns of downtown Shongaloo once wrote: “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go kaput.”
Just when legislators, LABI, LOGA and Jindal thought it was safe to go back into the courtroom, along comes the Mother of All Legacy Lawsuits.
A lot has transpired in the four months since the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) raised Jindal’s hackles when it filed that massive lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies for damages to the disappearing Louisiana coastline, not all of it good for the guv.
His courtroom setbacks are stacking up like dead armadillos on a busy Louisiana highway in the hot summertime but he nevertheless sticks with attorney Jimmy Faircloth, the recipient of more than a million dollars in fees while winning…what was it? Oh, yes, zero cases. Jindal could probably paper the walls of the governor’s mansion with the adverse legal decisions handed down thus far. His national political stock has gone into a free-fall that has him grabbing onto any issue that will give him face time on Faux News or CNN.
Distracted by his ongoing feud with President Obama over health care and the federal lawsuit that has thwarted his school voucher program, his pressing duties as Chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association and his yeoman’s work on behalf of failed Republican candidates (see Virginia governor’s race and Louisiana congressional election), Jindal has had precious little leisure time to tend to pesky little issues facing the state (see health care, budget deficits, federal investigations into multi-million contracts, crumbling infrastructure, flood insurance and that ever-expanding sink hole in Assumption Parish).
The one matter that he did tackle head-on, however, was that ridiculous lawsuit by the greedy SLFPA-E against those poor defenseless oil companies for the destruction of that useless Louisiana coastline that’s good for nothing but as a wildlife refuge…and oh yes, hurricane surge protection.
Jindal believes that the litigation is a crime against nature and just to prove his point, he resorted to his favorite tactic—firing those who dare disagree. But before he could fire three members of the authority who pushed for the lawsuit, he took the added measure of removing a $500,000 annual subsidy the authority has received in years past. Of course Jindal said the funding cutback was unrelated to the litigation. Yeah, right.
And of course Jindal only wants what’s fair for those civic-minded oil companies that dredged and then abandoned some 10,000 miles of canals along the Louisiana coast, decimating the hurricane wind and surge protection the coastal lands and marshes provided before their disappearance.
Oh, did we mention that of those 97 companies named in the lawsuit, 16 combined to contribute a minimum of $171,750 to one or more of Jindal’s three gubernatorial campaigns? And one of those, Marathon Oil, in addition to the $15,000 ponied up for Jindal’s campaigns, chipped in an additional $250,000 to the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children. Marathon subsidiaries then received a cool $5.2 million in state funds.
For a governor who raked in more than $20 million in his three campaigns, $421,750 seems an awfully cheap price for which to sell out the state’s chance to withstand the onslaught of coastal erosion—to turn the tide, if you’ll forgive the bad pun.
The antithesis to the pomposity of Vitter would be the dogmatic candor of Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, the last of the Louisiana populist politicians. Campbell, who ran unsuccessfully against Jindal in 2007, has thrown his unconditional support behind of the authority’s lawsuit and sharply criticized Jindal in the process.
“Jindal’s actions undermine the people and institutions trying to protect Louisiana from coastal erosion and flooding,” Campbell said. “He is shielding from blame the companies partly responsible for the damage.”
It is not the first time Campbell has taken shots at the establishment. He has accused virtually every Louisiana politician, with the exception of former Gov. Dave Treen, of selling out to the big oil interests. “The board (SLFPA-E) has done what virtually no politician in Louisiana has dared to do—confront Big Oil about its destructive coastal practices,” he said. “Mr. Jindal’s response was to replace the board president and vice president with people who will undo the lawsuit.”
Jindal, in arguing against the wisdom of the lawsuit, said it “jeopardizes and undermines our ability to implement the Master Plan.”
Jindal was referencing the 50-year coastal protection and restoration Master Plan which outlines how the state and local governments will restore wetlands and improve on flood protection, particularly for the New Orleans area.
There’re only two problems with that $50 billion Master Plan:
And if something is not done soon, there may not be a New Orleans to worry about in 50 years.
Jindal also called on SLFPA-E to fire its attorneys, claiming they were hired in violation of state law that requires their hiring be approved by the governor.
But then-SLFPA-E Chairman John Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America, said Jindal was dead wrong (nothing new about that) in his contention that the authority needed his permission to file suit. He said Jindal was relying on the wrong state law that applies to state boards and commissions, not the specific legislation creating the authority. (We can’t help but wonder where Jindal got his legal advice.)
So Jindal took the only action he knows: he fired Barry, Ricardo Pineda and David Barnes and replaced them with New Orleans attorney Lambert Hassinger, Jr., Jefferson Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, and Kelly McHugh of Madisonville, president of the Kelly McHugh and Associates civil engineering and land surveying firm.
And, oh yes, he yanked the authority’s $500,000 annual state subsidy.
But then a strange thing happened. The parishes of Jefferson and Plaquemines filed their own lawsuits against a spate of oil companies. Jefferson filed seven lawsuits and Plaquemines 21, claiming a variety of environmental law infractions, including dredging canals without proper permits and without employing erosion prevention techniques to prevent the encroachment of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.
And Jindal is powerless to fire the parish leaders or to require that they seek his permission to file suit or that they fire their attorneys.
It brings to mind the 1958 battle between the U.S. Justice Department over desegregation. Then-Gov. Earl Long saw the inevitability of things to come as well as the futility of continued resistance against the federal government. Leander Perez, boss of Plaquemines Parish, that last bastion of segregation, however, did not and vowed to continue the fight. This prompted Long to chide Perez, saying, “Whatcha gonna do now, Leander? The feds got the A-Bomb!”
That quote could be paraphrased today with, “Whatcha gonna do now, Bobby? Those parishes got their own attorneys!”