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Louisiana Lawsuit Targets Pipelines for Coastal Damage

A lawsuit filed last week against pipeline companies in Louisiana by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) is an example of a state agency and its lawyers looking for a big payout, the head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA) told NGI Wednesday. A lawyer for the plaintiff, however, said his client only wants the pipelines to do their share of the work in restoring protections for the state's coast.

According to SLFPA-E, pipeline companies that cut thousands of miles of oil and gas canals and pipelines through the state's coastal lands should repair a damaged environmental buffer zone that helps protect most of the greater New Orleans region from flooding.

The action quickly drew the wrath of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who called on SLFPA-E to drop the lawsuit. Jindal said the agency overstepped its authority and failed to get his required approval on its contract with lawyers. "We're not going to allow a single levee board that has been hijacked by a group of trial lawyers to determine flood protection, coastal restoration and economic repercussions for the entire state of Louisiana," Jindal said. "This suit takes a myopic view of coastal Louisiana that actually jeopardizes and undermines our ability to implement the master plan" for coastal restoration.

Last week, some state lawmakers were calling for the lawsuit to be withdrawn while others said it should go forward. It was not clear whether Jindal would take action to stop it.

Filed in state district court in Orleans Parish, the lawsuit alleges about 100 pipeline/energy company defendants, large and small, compromised the integrity of Louisiana's coastal lands with activities tied to hundreds of wells and pipelines, heightening risks of hurricanes, storm surge and flooding in the region. The SLFPA-E operates and maintains the system of levees, floodgates, seawalls and jetties that protect the greater New Orleans region and asserts in the lawsuit that the defendants are obligated by law to restore the coastal land areas.

LOGA President Don Briggs told NGI the SLFPA-E and its lawyers are fishing for a payday. "It's just a continuation of Louisiana's Mardi Gras syndrome -- 'throw me something, mister.' It's an attack on Louisiana's oil and gas industry because it's the one place that they'll have deep pockets to be able to sue."

The lawsuit was brought by three law firms hired under contingency fee contracts by SLFPA-E. Such contracts stipulate that attorneys are paid from the award anticipated by the plaintiff if the lawsuit is successful and are not legal in some jurisdictions. "I don't know if they've even gone through all the necessary requirements they're supposed to go through in Louisiana to even be able to do a contingency fee contract," Briggs said.

According to the petition, "Oil and gas activities continue to transform what was once a stable ecosystem of naturally occurring bayous, small canals and ditches into an extensive -- and expanding -- network of large and deep canals that continues to widen due to defendants' ongoing failure to maintain this network or restore the ecosystem to its natural state. That canal network continues to introduce increasingly larger volumes of damaging saltwater, at increasingly greater velocity, ever deeper into Louisiana's coastal landscape and interior wetlands."

SLFPA-E said that conservative estimates are that since 1932, Louisiana has lost more than 1,900 square miles of coastal lands, enough to cover the state of Delaware, and 700 more square miles are expected to be lost in coming decades.

Briggs disputed the alleged scale of the oil and gas industry's role in wetlands degradation.

"A lot of the claims that they made in there are incorrect..." Briggs told NGI. "The studies I've seen, the oil and gas industry's contribution to the wetlands lost in Louisiana, the coastal losses, is a very small percentage of the whole list of reasons. They talk about intrusion and coastal loss and that type of thing...The Intracoastal Waterway, all the different highways that they have going down to the coastal parishes and the coastlines and all the drainage ditches...It's just a massive number of ways that they have intruded into the flow and the marsh. Our biggest coastal loss is due to the redirection of the Mississippi River...That's common knowledge."

Lawyer Gladstone Jones of Jones, Swanson, Huddell and Garrison LLC, one of the three firms representing SLFPA-E, acknowledged the role of the Mississippi River's redirection in coastal degradation.

"There really are two causes of this coastal loss," Jones told NGI. "One is the levee and the Mississippi River and the other is the oil and gas activity...Why isn't this the federal government's problem and not an the oil and gas companies' problem? Our response to that is the federal government has spent a huge amount of money to try and get the levee system back up and running and do what they can to protect against the dire consequences of the coastal loss around Louisiana. To our knowledge, we're not so sure the oil companies have put up much money at all for restoration..."

The law firms began working on the case last November after being contacted by SLFPA-E, Jones said. Damages caused by oil and gas activity run into the billions of dollars, he said. Pipelines named in the suit were selected following an examination of aerial photographs of the affected region and research into what companies have been permitted for activities in the area. More pipelines are likely to be named in the lawsuit, he added.

Created by the Louisiana legislature as a reform board in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, the SLFPA-E is charged with ensuring the physical and operational integrity of the regional flood risk management system. SLFPA-E Vice President John Barry is also the author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America."

"With this lawsuit, the authority is carrying out its mandate to help protect southern Louisiana by strengthening our first line of defense against catastrophic flooding," Barry said. "That first defensive perimeter is, of course, the buffer of land and marsh that cuts down hurricane storm surge before it reaches the levees. The industry has taken about $470 billion of the state's natural resources during the past 20 years, and we ask that it pick up its share of the increased costs of flood protections required to offset the loss of protective coastal wetlands."

The lawsuit is Board of Commissioners of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, et al., v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, LLC, et al., No. 2013-6911 in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans. Jones' firm has established a website with information.

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