BATON ROUGE – With the state recently taking over more than 39 lawsuits brought by three parishes against oil and gas companies, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resource is waiting to see what -- if any -- money it will receive from the litigation to restore coastal wetlands lost to erosion.
The suits -- brought by Plaquemines, Jefferson and Cameron parishes -- allege that companies in the oil and gas industries have not contributed their fair share to coastal wetland restoration mandated under agreements with the state of Louisiana.
Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resource, told the Louisiana Record that the move by the state was designed to ensure that any possible money paid out would benefit the entire coast.
“Our role is just to have a seat at the table,” he said.
Courreges said the lawsuit would be tricky, as some aspects of coastal erosion can be attributed to natural factors. Plaintiffs argue, however, that centuries of exploratory drilling and shipping activity by oil and gas companies have increased erosion. Coastal use permits issued to the companies by the state often include mitigation agreements, meaning that the companies must pay to restore wetlands lost due to the activities. The plaintiffs in the suits allege the companies have not been paying their required share.
“What’s always been the question is, with further activity in the coastal area, what are you doing that’s accelerating it?” Courreges said. “That’s going to be kinda the point of the litigation that’s filed -- to what percentage should (oil and gas companies) bear a responsibility, and have they already met it or have they not already met it?"
The move consolidates more than 39 lawsuits filed between the three parishes in the state. The latest 11 were filed by Cameron Parish in early February.
Similar suits have been filed in recent years. In 2013, the New Orleans Levee Board filed suit against 100 energy companies for similar claims. The judge in that case dismissed the suit, claiming that the board was not the proper authority to bring the case at the state level, and deferred it to the federal courts. Attorneys for the board argued last February that the case should be moved back to Louisiana courts, which observers see as a more “friendly” system for the plaintiffs than federal court. That case is currently pending before the U.S. 5th District Court of Appeals.
In the meantime, the state hopes its involvement ensures money gained in lawsuits is divided equally among every parish that is affected by erosion. Courreges said that Lafourche Parish, which has not filed any lawsuits, is among the most impacted by coastal erosion.
“We’ve got the entire coast to deal with,” Courreges said. “First we see if there’s any funding to come out of this; and if there is, how is it best applied and where.”
In a statement announcing the move, Edwards praised the “long history of partnership” the state has had with the oil and gas industries.
“While we need to require that everyone follow the law and meet their obligations, any solution of these suits has to be focused on working with the industry to restore Louisiana’s coast,” Edwards said in the statement.