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Pipes, Producers Move to Dismiss LA Wetlands Lawsuit

A U.S. district judge in Louisiana has set a court date of Friday (June 30) in New Orleans to hear arguments concerning whether to dismiss a class action lawsuit brought last year against several major pipeline companies and producers. The lawsuit, brought by residents of the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina, was originally filed in September 2005, alleging that the companies' exploration and production of oil and natural gas destroyed wetlands, which contributed to the massive storm damage (see NGI, Sept. 19, 2005).

The lawsuit (No. 2:05-cv-04161-SSV-DEK) was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana by residents living in the parishes hardest hit by Katrina: St. Bernard, Orleans, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Livingston, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles, Lafourche, Ascension, St. James, Assumption, Iberia, St. Martin, St. Mary and Terrebonne. The lawsuit separates the defendants into two groups. The pipeline defendants are Columbia Gulf Transmission Co., Koch Pipeline Co. LP, Gulf South Pipeline Co. LP, Shell Pipeline Co. LP, Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. and Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Corp. The exploration and production company defendants are Shell Oil Co., ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and BP plc.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance will hear the defendants' motion to dismiss, which was filed in May. The 34-page motion by the defendants noted that the plaintiffs pointed to "no authority to support their unprecedented attempt to impose wholesale liability on the oil and gas industry for the incalculable damage inflicted on Louisiana residents by Hurricane Katrina and for a massve though undefined restoration project to the coastal zone. Instead, plaintiffs insist that their case is a run of the mill tort action and invite the court to disregard both the critical elements of duty and causation that are entirely missing from their claims and the nonjustifiable political questions their sweeping allegations raise."

The plaintiffs' motion, said the defendants, had relied on "inopposite decisions about third-party contractors to argue defendants owe a duty never found before to protect inland residents from hurricane damage, and they ignore Louisiana Supreme Court authority that defendants have no duty requiring them to refrain from dredging canals necessary for energy development."

In response, the plaintiffs said the oil and gas companies' "facts are disputed...for valid, scientific reasons." They said the producers and pipeline operators had gone "to great lengths in their memorandum to elaborate about coastal land loss as a result of natural processes, and cite factors of human intervention by any and all persons and entities except themselves, who are in fact the primary actors in coastal land loss via their exploration, production and transportation of oil and gas from the marshes of South Louisiana.

"In reality, there is substantial and legitimate evidence, widely accepted within the scientific community, to establish that defendants' actitivities are directly responsible for, at a minimum, between 33 1/3% and 55% of all Louisiana's wetlands loss, and that their direct and indirect activities combined have caused up to 80% of the loss of wetlands, all of which is alleged to have led to disastrous results for plaintiffs in this case."

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