BATON ROUGE – For the better part of 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards and his efforts to get the oil and natural gas industries to pay for the restoration of Louisiana’s coast have been under scrutiny.
The scrutiny of Edward's efforts deals largely with who he is choosing to litigate the case against the oil and gas industries.
The Louisiana coastline has lost approximately 1,900 square miles of coast since the 1930s, an area the size of the state of Delaware. Coastal loss continues at a rate of around 17 square miles a year. It is one of the state’s most dire problems, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
According to a USGS, there are many factors contributing to the coastal loss in Louisiana, including invasive species, hurricanes, subsidence, oil and gas infrastructure, sediment deprivation, dams upriver and sea level rise.
Although the facts provided by the USGS illustrate the cause of coastal land loss is a culmination of natural and unnatural factors, Edwards is targeting the oil and gas industries to pay for nearly 100 years’ of damage in the making.
Several dozen lawsuits filed by four coastal parishes against oil and gas companies in Louisiana claim that canals and pipelines dug by the industry are at least partially responsible for the loss of land.
In his efforts to recover money via lawsuits; Edwards awarded a prohibited contingency-based contract to some of his top campaign donors to lead the Jefferson Parish litigation against oil and gas companies – a case that could result in a big payout for his appointed litigators.
The defendants filed for a dismissal based on rules that require the state to exhaust all available remedies before filing a lawsuit.
On Aug. 8, the 24th Judicial District of Louisiana ruled in favor of the oil and gas companies, ruling that the parish failed to pursue all administrative remedies before filing the lawsuit.
Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA) and Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), two named defendants in the case, issued a joint statement Aug. 9.
“The district court’s ruling makes it crystal clear that this litigation scheme is premature and inappropriate.” the statement said. “The only parties that benefit from these premature and unnecessary lawsuits are the small group of trial lawyers who initiated them to advance their own interests under the guise of the public interest.”
Attorney General Jeff Landry released a statement agreeing with the court’s decision stating he felt compelled to preserve the legislative will enacted in the statute.
Edwards’ efforts were further eroded on Sept. 6 when Chief Deputy Attorney General Wilbur Stiles wrote a letter to Edward’s executive counsel, William Block, refusing to approve of the contract between the governor’s office and Taylor Townsend, who runs Edwards' super political action committee and was a leading fundraiser for his 2015 campaign. He wrote the contracted contingency fee arrangement “would be in direct violation of statutory law,” referencing the contingency agreement to pay fees from the gross recovery of any lawsuit.
“We believe this creates an illegal and unconstitutional contingency fee arrangement,” Stiles wrote.
While it is clear something must be done to restore and protect Louisiana’s coastline, public policy and communication consultant David Blackmon believes the governor’s tactics will cost him more in the end.
“Blaming the oil and gas industry for the land subsidence issues plaguing the Louisiana Delta region is like blaming a three-pack-a-day smoker’s case of lung cancer on the smoke coming from the barbecue restaurant half a mile away," Blackmon wrote. "Sure, the barbecue smoke might have been a very slight contributing factor, but there is a far, far larger elephant sitting smack dab in the middle of this living room.”
Blackmon told the Louisiana Record, that Edwards' actions are a bad sign for the state.
“Louisiana had a bad reputation for poor practices in politics in the past. Former Gov. (Bobby) Jindal enacted an ethics reform and overhaul law that was a clear signal to businesses that Louisiana was becoming a better state in which to do business," Blackmon said. "He revamped the state’s tax and regulatory climate in what became a successful effort to attract new oil and gas and other major business to the state. Before that, it had a hard time attracting business.”
According to Blackmon, Edwards ignoring the ethics reforms and awarding illegal contracts sends a message to businesses that Louisiana isn’t the place to do business, especially when it is pinning a century's worth of contributing factors to its coastal loss solely on the oil and gas industry.
“The oil and gas industry is not at total fault for the subsidence and coastal loss; and with these lawsuits there is a real risk for Louisiana to lose business as a result,"Blackmon said. "These industries create jobs, and states compete with each other for these jobs. All this litigation that takes place in Louisiana doesn’t take place in other states, so these industries will leave Louisiana and go to other states, which will harm an already economically-depressed state like Louisiana.”
Blackmon said Edwards is ignoring the law by awarding illegal contracts to his campaign supporters.
“These contracts are going to a very specific subset of trial attorneys in the area. It’s very blatant," Blackmon said. "He’s going after deep pockets so he can potentially enrich his friends. He’s going after low-hanging fruit.”
The governor is bullying his way through those who stand in his way, Blackmon said.
“In spite of the attorney general’s announcement that he wouldn’t approve the contracts, Edwards came out a couple of hours later and said he’s pushing ahead," Blackmon said.
Blackmon believes coastal loss is a significant issue that needs to be addressed; however, the state and residents shouldn’t ignore the fact that Edwards is violating the law through illegal contracts and pinning land loss on one industry that is not solely responsible for the loss.
“If the governor believes he has the power to award these contracts, the price that’s likely to be paid by the state is an outflow of industry and business. They will go where they aren’t getting their pants sued off by the state and government,” Blackmon said.