NEW ORLEANS — Despite a recent victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the Louisiana oil and gas industry still faces the threat of new litigation from state and local governments.
On March 17, the appeals court ruled against the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East's request to have its lawsuit against over 90 oil companies for the damage that they have allegedly caused to the coastal area moved to a state court. The lawsuit alleges that the companies’ activities have damaged Louisiana's coastal lands, increased the risk of flooding from storm surges and necessitated costly flood protection measures.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East is comprised of East Jefferson Levee District, Orleans Levee District and Lake Borgne Basin Levee District. Its mission is to "ensure the physical and operational integrity of the regional flood risk management system," according to its website.
The appeals court ruling has its roots in a 2015 attempt by the authority to have the lawsuit moved from federal court to state court. U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown ruled that the dispute focused on federal laws and therefore belongs in federal court. Brown also ruled that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East had failed to demonstrate that the 97 oil companies named in the lawsuit had a duty to repair the damage to the levees, which included refilling that canals.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East appealed Brown's decision, but a three-judge panel affirmed Brown's decisions.
While representatives of the the oil and gas industry have said they consider the ruling to be a victory, there is still concern over the threat associated with similar legal challenges in the future, according to Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.
"Unfortunately, not much has changed," Briggs told the Louisiana Record. "We still are dealing with the same small group of trial lawyers going after oil and gas companies."
So far, six parishes have filed suit against oil and gas companies, Briggs said.
"Recently, St. John the Baptist became the sixth parish to file suit against oil and gas companies," Briggs said. "First, it was landowners filing frivolous lawsuits, now it’s local government and elected officials coming after the very industry that supports them. "
Briggs said the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association is working to discourage other local governments from participating in similar lawsuits.
"We are continuing our outreach to coastal parishes and elected officials across Louisiana and encouraging them to not follow the other six parishes by filing a suit of their own," Briggs said. "We know that Taylor Townsend has a signed contract and is now working for the state in managing these lawsuits, so we are concerned what the next step might be."