Coastal land loss lawsuits overlooking science behind the issue

By Emily Crowe | Jul 4, 2016

BATON ROUGE – Many believe oil and energy companies have destroyed coastal marshes and wetlands along the Gulf Coast through standard drilling activities, though scientific and geological research paints a different picture of the true cause of coastal land loss.

Roy Dokka, who died in 2011, was a pioneering Louisiana State University (LSU) geologist who openly questioned the science behind Louisiana's coastal restoration plans. Dokka argued that natural subsidence, or the settling and sinking of land in the Gulf of Mexico, was causing much more damage than the subsidence caused by man-made activities such as oil and gas extraction.

“I think that human beings tend to think that ... we have had more affect than nature has, which is ridiculous," Dokka told the Houston Geological Society in 2005. "What we should do is understand what is likely to happen based on geologic models and we’ll find that this is the history of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Current lawsuits that seemingly ignore this scientific research include one filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLPFA–E), a regional levee authority created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in 2013 that accused nearly 100 oil and energy companies of being responsible for the coastal land loss.

That case was dismissed last year on the grounds that the claims made by SLPFA–E were unsubstantiated as insufficient evidence was provided linking the defendants’ activities to the alleged damages. The SLPFA-E appealed the judge’s ruling and that case is still being considered.

In addition, Cameron, Jefferson and Plaquemines parish councils have filed additional lawsuits against oil and gas companies, accusing them of destroying the coast through drilling activities.

Edward Richards, a professor of law at LSU and a friend of Dokka’s, believes the question raised by these lawsuits is whether coastal land loss would not be as much of an issue if the oil companies had not destroyed the wetlands.

“The lawsuits assume a steady state (for) Earth, no subsidence, no climate change-driven sea level rise," Richards told the Louisiana Record. "All of the damage to the wetlands has been caused by the oil industry since 1932 (according to the suits)."

Richards’ and Dokka’s research, however, asserts that is not the case.

“In a world with subsidence, rising sea level and limited sediment, the delta is going to shrink,” Edwards said.

As far as he can tell, Edwards believes neither side cares about science in these cases.

“The oil and gas industry has undermined good coastal science for decades with (its) support for restoration and (its) failure to fund studies to rebut bad science,” he said. “The environmental groups and the parishes are suing for damages that the oil industry had only a small part in.”

While Dokka’s work still resonates today, current lawsuits and court battles don’t seem to be making use of it.

“(The SLPFA-E) lawsuit denies the reality of climate change and geologic history," Edwards said. "This denial, if encouraged by the courts, will make it harder to implement the retreat from the coast that is necessary to save the remaining wetlands, and to protect human life and property in the long run.”

Regardless, Dokka’s legacy will live on through his thoughtful research and outspoken take on the subject of coastal land loss.

“In my opinion, Dr. Roy Dokka epitomized the role of a responsible earth scientist in modern society,” Chris McLindon, exploration geologist, told the Louisiana Record. “He conducted rigorous scientific research to understand changes that were occurring at the earth’s surface, and in particular the wetlands of Louisiana.”

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