The City of New Orleans has joined a half dozen Louisiana parishes in suing the oil and natural gas industry for its role in coastal land loss.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration late Friday announced the lawsuit, which seeks to hold the energy industry accountable for damage to wetlands and marshes over decades of drilling and dredging.
Reducing the natural protective barriers has contributed to making New Orleans more vulnerable to storage surges and threatens the city’s existence, Cantrell said.
“New Orleans has been harmed. The people of our city have been harmed, and our way of life is threatened by the damage done to our coastal wetlands. The land that’s been lost was a protective barrier defending us from hurricanes and floods. If current trends hold, New Orleans will be a literal coastal city within the next 50 years -- with no protective land barriers.
"Given the challenges we face when it comes to our infrastructure, the additional strain of these damages demands action. Getting our fair share means being made whole by the companies who have harmed us.”
City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf said the lawsuit was filed “to ensure that the residents of Orleans Parish are safe, our economy is protected, and to help restore our coast.”
The lawsuit calls on the city’s utility, Entergy New Orleans, as well as defendants that include subsidiaries of Chevron Corp. and ExxonMobil Corp., to pay to restore the barriers.
The city’s lawsuit is similar to ones wending their way through the courts by several Louisiana parishes, including energy industry-dependent Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. John the Baptist. The parish lawsuits also claim the oil and gas industry damaged specific areas and did not restore them as required in violation of drilling and dredging permits.
The New Orleans lawsuit alleges specific violations under the state’s Coastal Zone Management Act of 1978, as well as dangers posed by the eroding coastal lands.
According to the filing in New Orleans Civil District Court, the coastal land is "quickly disappearing as a result of the failures of oil and gas exploration and production and pipeline actors to maintain and control the effect of their activities on the coastal environment in the vicinity of New Orleans in a manner that members of that industry, including the defendants here, specifically foresaw...
"As a result, New Orleans faces grave harms. The Gulf of Mexico is perched on her stoop...Commerce, transportation, culture, the economy, and most importantly the people are in danger."
Among other things, the lawsuit claims energy operators failed to maintain the canals used to access and transport oil and gas, and pipelines through the wetlands extended the damage.
"Because each defendant failed to either contain its operations within permitted bounds or to secure a coastal use permit when required, to simply follow the rules, to fix what they broke, the network of canals and other facilities they allowed to degrade the coastal lands has ravaged New Orleans' protective landscape," the lawsuit alleges.
The Louisiana Oil & Gas Association (LOGA) and other industry-backed groups said the lawsuit was unnecessary and damaging. LOGA claimed that New Orleans had reacted to pressure by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who took office in 2017.
“It is unfortunate to see the City of New Orleans bow to the administration’s pressure for more self-serving lawsuits,” said LOGA President Gifford Briggs. “These lawsuits are nothing more than a trial lawyer’s version of Hadacol; they promise snake oil to heal all your ailments, but do nothing other than line the peddlers’ pockets."
New Orleans is sending a message to the oil and gas industry that “they’re closed for business,” said President Tyler Gray of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.
“Unnecessary legal tactics threaten the community investment and cultural support the industry has provided for over a century, which they can now potentially lose, as they wait for several years, as other parishes in the state have, for this to work its way through the judicial process," Gray said.
Also weighing in was Grow Louisiana Coalition, an industry supporter.
“Nothing good comes from suing an industry that means so much to New Orleans,” said Executive Director Marc Ehrhardt. “Right now, there are more than 1,600 New Orleanians and a couple hundred New Orleans-based businesses working in the energy industry here. Lawsuits do not build relationships. They end them.”
The lawsuit is similar in some respects to a failed claim by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The authority, which oversees east bank levees and flood control structures, had sought to hold the industry responsible for a broad range of damages. However, the lawsuit was rejected in 2017 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled the authority did not have standing to sue.
Defendants also named in the lawsuit include Apache Louisiana Minerals LLC, Aspect Energy LLC, Chaparral Energy LLC, Collins Pipeline Co., EOG Resources Inc., Gulf South Pipeline Co. LP, Southern Natural Gas Co. LLC and Whiting Oil and Gas Corp.