GRETNA — A judge ruled that a wetlands damage lawsuit filed by a
Louisiana parish against nine oil and gas companies will go to a new trial, a
reversal of an August decision to dismiss the suit.
Judge Stephen Enright Jr. of the 24th Judicial District
Court said Thursday the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and
the parish can move forward with lawsuits before holding administrative proceedings
on oil and gas permits.
Oil and gas industry leaders attacked the ruling and
questioned Edward’s motives for the reversal. In a statement, the Louisiana Oil
and Gas Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association
said the state has abandoned the “longstanding administrative process.” Some of the group's members are listed in the lawsuits.
“Judge Enright’s reversal is based entirely on assertions
made by Gov. [John Bel] Edwards and DNR officials that the state doesn’t have
the staff, the funding or the capability to address permit violations alleged
in the coastal lawsuits,” the groups said. “DNR’s primary duty and obligation
under state law is to do the work that the Edwards administration is now
calling on our judicial system to do.”
The lawsuits are among many filed by Louisiana parishes in
response to coastal damage they alleged were caused by oil and gas companies. Parishes are
seeking damages for land lost during canal dredging and laying pipeline through
marshland. The State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 lays
out what companies are required to do for restoration, which is one of the
terms granted through state permits.
The suits stem from alleged permit violations the DNR is tasked
with enforcing. The state alleges it doesn’t have the staff or the funds to
deal with the high volume of permit violations that cause coastal damage.
Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President
Chris John and Louisiana Oil and Gas Association acting president Gifford
Briggs called the state’s bluff. They estimate the DNR has a budget of $69
million and employs hundreds of scientists.
“We fundamentally disagree with the view that our
overworked, overburdened courts are more capable of enforcing the terms of
state issued permits than an entire department that has the resources and the
constitutional obligation to do just that,” the statement said.
Enright’s decision paves the way for other lawsuits to head
to court, and gives Edwards the ability to file similar lawsuits for other
coastal parishes. At stake is billions of dollars from oil and gas companies to
fund the state’s coastal restoration program. Meanwhile, Edwards has been criticized for appointing campaign donors, who stand to make millions off such lawsuits, to handle such cases on behalf of the state.
Oil and gas leaders said they expect a long legal battle on
the issue without directly saying they would appeal.
“As these unnecessary lawsuits wind their way through the
courts over the next 10 to 20 years, many more energy companies will likely go
bankrupt and those who don’t will choose to invest and create jobs elsewhere,” said the statement from John and Briggs. “It’s time that we get back to doing what
we do best in Louisiana, and that’s refueling our nation. Endless litigation is
not the answer to strengthening our economy or restoring our coast.”