NEW ORLEANS - Restore Louisiana Now President John Barry has long argued that suing big oil and gas companies is the best way to motivate them to repair damage to coastal wetlands, but his critics say the industry is already doing its share to right any wrongs it may have caused to the environment.
"The truth Barry wants us to avoid is that Louisiana’s oil and gas industry is already investing and addressing the coastal issues facing the communities where we live and work," Marc Ehrhardt, executive director of the GROW Louisiana Coalition (GLaC), recently told the Louisiana Record.
Columnist Clancy Dubos wrote in the New Orleans Gambit on April 8 that lawsuits from "brave" coastal parishes allegedly led to a panicked reaction in the state government that resulted in then-Gov. Bobby Jindal attempting to pass laws to derail such lawsuits. Dubos also decried state Attorney General Jeff Landry's recent takeover of 39 such lawsuits by three coastal parishes, accusing him of being friendly with large oil companies and likely letting them off with a punishment that would be "pennies on the dollar" compared to the damage they allegedly caused.
Ehrhardt, however, says the oil and gas companies being sued are already contributing to the Louisiana economy in a large way.
"Today, the oil and gas industry directly pays nearly $1.5 billion in state taxes and fees, which accounts for nearly 15 percent of total state taxes, licenses and fees collected each year, according to noted economist Dr. Loren Scott," Ehrhardt said. "These monies are also used to pay for environmental and coastal projects, including funding for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority."
Ehrhardt said the oil and gas industry has been working to help sustain and improve Louisiana's environment, donating and protecting tens of thousands of acres of green space, swamp and marshland for environmental research. He said these companies have also helped create miles of artificial oyster reefs and assisted coastal communities with resiliency planning, and at least one unnamed oil and gas company has planted more than 1 million trees on coastal areas of the state.
He said that people like Barry, who is the former vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East as well as a noted author, have ignored the industry's contributions to the state.
"Barry continues to unfairly characterize the history of the industry in our state, ignoring or disparaging the industry’s ongoing contributions to the environment and confusing the public about the real causes of the coastal challenges we face and can address by working together," Ehrhardt said.
With Restore Louisiana Now lobbying in favor of the lawsuits against the oil and gas industry, Ehrhardt also accused Barry of the same type of shady tactics Dubos accused the government of in his column.
"Since his ill-advised, backdoor plan to hire trial lawyers outside of public view to sue oil and gas companies began at the Southeast Louisiana Flood Authority–East two years ago, John Barry has embarked on a seemingly endless journey to blame the state’s oil and gas industry for the challenges Louisiana faces," Ehrhardt said.
While it's clear that the debate between the business benefits of big oil versus its impact on the environment will go on for some time, Ehrhardt says the oil and gas industry is committed to working with the state for its benefit.
"The oil and gas industry has collaborated with the state and parish communities for decades," he said. "It has been part of the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan from the beginning, choosing to work together instead of pursuing a self-serving agenda in a courtroom. The only people who win with lawsuits like these are the attorneys."