Governor urged to retreat from threat to sue oil and gas companies

By John Breslin | Oct 10, 2016

BATON ROUGE — Gov. John Bel Edwards has been strongly urged to reconsider the pressure he's placed on parishes to sue oil and gas companies over alleged damage to coasts caused by their operations.

The governor sent a letter to coastal parishes asking them to hire private lawyers to sue the energy companies and warned that if they did not, the state would take legal action on their behalf.

Two parish presidents from Lafourche and Terrebonne met with Edwards and delivered a letter that told him they have no intention of suing the oil and gas companies.

“I kindly ask you to please realize the effect a lawsuit such as this will have on our local economy. A suit such as this at this time will jeopardize hundreds of new jobs,” the letter read. It was written by Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove and co-signed by Lafourche Parish President Jimmy Cantrell.

In his letter to 16 coastal parishes, Edwards gave them 30 days to reply. He upped that to 45 days following the meeting with the two parish presidents. He will instruct the state’s department of natural resources (DNR) to sue on behalf of the parishes if they do not hire lawyers.

Four parishes have already filed suits against oil and gas companies, Jefferson, Plaquemines, Cameron and Vermilion. These continue to toil in state court and in some cases, remain there for years.

The parish presidents are supported by industry groups, the local chambers of commerce and the South Central Industrial Association, among others.

Bel Edwards should “work more closely with companies to ensure the economic success of the state, while saving our coast,” the industrial association’s Jane Arnette told the Lousiana Record.

“Our position is that, as business leaders, we have to recognize coastal restoration and protection, but also must protect our businesses,” Arnette told the Louisiana Record.

All companies play an economic role in the region, and all contribute to the funding to maintain the coastline, she added.

“Oil companies participate in coastal projects and have been doing it for years and years,” Arnette said. “This is being managed, and lawsuits are not the answer.”

She urged the governor to reconsider and to work more closely with companies in the coastal region.

“This cannot be just about the oil companies,” Arnette said.

Edwards, in a statement, said the lawsuits are about holding the oil and gas industry responsible for the damage companies caused to the coastline.

“It is true that Louisiana has been tremendously blessed with oil and gas resources and our long history of partnership with the industry has been essential to Louisiana’s economy,” Edwards said in a statement that ran in the Daily Comet newspaper.

“However, these lawsuits are about holding this industry responsible for the damage it has caused and its promise to restore the coast to pre-project conditions,” Edwards said. "I remain hopeful that we can have a constructive dialog about reaching a resolution of these claims so that we can all continue to do everything possible to save our coast.”

In their letter telling the governor they do not intend to sue, the two parish presidents pleaded with the governor to direct the DNR to conduct a review of all coastal use permits to determine if there are any violations.

“Terrebonne parish does not plan to file suit ... I formally and respectfully request the state of Louisiana and/or the department of natural resources (DNR) do not sue on behalf of Terrebonne,” the letter read.

"[We] firmly believe the DNR, the state of Louisiana and the coastal parishes should be reviewing and investigating the coastal use permits issued since 1978,” the two parish presidents wrote. "If violations are found, then the administrative remedies should be exhausted and enforced prior to any lawsuits.

They added that it is “scientifically proven” that coastal erosion was caused primarily by the construction of levees on the Mississippi River.

This “halted the fresh water and natural sediment deposits that were distributed through our tributaries and ecosystem for over 10,000 years. Please respect our decisions not to proceed with a lawsuit at this time,” they asked.

Arnette said the resolution of these matters cuts to the heart of the economic survival of the region. A collaborative effort is needed if the issue coastal damage is to be resolved.

“It’s critical to understand this state, and oil and gas,” Arnette said. “It’s a gateway from offshore oil and gas to the entire United States. If lawsuits are pursued, other states will move in, with Mississippi and Texas already circling.”

She said Louisiana is sandwiched right between those two states, and the oil and gas industry could easily move en masse to either one. 

“We, our industries, our companies, are greatly suffering because of the price of oil. The offshore industry can go anywhere they want," Arnette said. "I cannot speak for the governor but we have to stand strong and hopefully he will see things our way and better understand our positions. I am against the governor on this, but maintain respect.”

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