BATON ROUGE – As Gov. John Bel Edwards attempts to force a settlement with oil and gas companies that would see those companies funding the restoration of the state’s coastline, some in the state are skeptical of the move.
“There is the perception that this litigation is being pursued by the state at this time simply because money is tight and budgets are lacking,” Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW), said.
LLAW bills itself as a “local non-partisan, nonprofit, citizen watchdog group dedicated to stopping lawsuit abuse.”
The state has tried to pressure industry leaders to begin talks to move toward a settlement that would provide money for the sizable project of restoring Louisiana’s depleted coastal regions, including marshes and wetlands.
Edwards met with oil and gas producers in May to ask for a settlement dialogue, but they rejected his request. In a letter sent to the governor after the meeting, industry leaders noted, “If the state were truly interested in addressing allegations of specific permit violations that have allegedly damaged the coast, it would follow its own process and comply with existing law, not use lawsuits to try and create new ones."
Edwards estimates the cost of the project will be $100 billion over the next five decades, according to the Acadiana Advocate.
But Landry cited the case of the Cameron Parish School Board, which sued oil and gas companies, and then used the money not on environmental restoration, but on its day-to-day operations.
“Particularly given the history of what has happened in other similar cases,” Landry said. “I don’t think it is fair to assume that any money derived from this unnecessary litigation would actually go to coastal restoration. There’s no guarantee of that.”
It is true that the state faces financial instability.
On June 1, according to the Times-Picayune, Edwards asked the state Senate to drop the House-approved budget over concerns that it used a potentially illegal funding scheme to maintain hospitals for the poor and the TOPS scholarship program. The House amendments called for cuts to portions of the state’s budget to be used in paying off state debt, theoretically freeing up more money for the hospitals and scholarship program. If the Senate scraps the House’s version of the budget, cuts will be back on the table for both.
Three parishes have filed suits against oil and gas companies seeking damages for the companies’ alleged role in the destruction of marsh and wetlands: Jefferson, Plaquemines and Cameron. Edwards asked every parish for a 60-day “cooling off” period in which the parishes wouldn’t pursue further action, to allow him to work on a settlement with the industry. The end of that period is June 13.
Even the focus of the lawsuits is a problem, according to Landry. She mentioned other coastal stakeholders, such as the engineer corps that controls the levees many argue have depleted the wetlands of vital sediment-rich water and the fishing industry, and questioned why they weren’t also involved in the state’s restoration work.
“This litigation represents a hostile, narrow approach that targets the state’s No. 1 provider of private sector jobs and revenue," Landry said.
Editor's Note: This story was revised with updated quotes on June 6, 2016.