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To Fight Coastal Damage, Louisiana Parishes Pushed To Sue Energy Industry

Wetlands and marshlands that once protected New Orleans and the surrounding areas from storm surge have been depleted over the years. Here, the $1.1 billion Lake Borgne Surge Barrier outside New Orleans in 2015.
Mario Tama
Getty Images
Wetlands and marshlands that once protected New Orleans and the surrounding areas from storm surge have been depleted over the years. Here, the $1.1 billion Lake Borgne Surge Barrier outside New Orleans in 2015.

For a man with a mural of an oil refinery in his office, deciding to sue the oil and gas industry wasn't an easy choice.

But it was a necessary one for Guy McInnis, the president of Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, just south of New Orleans.

On a recent day, McInnis stands overlooking Lake Borgne. Now an open lake, the area was once prime wetlands and marshlands that protected St. Bernard from storm surge. It took a big hit during Hurricane Katrina.

Oil companies would dig through the marshy area to get to their shallow water wells.

"They would dig a ditch to get their boat to the oil well, and that ditch was not replaced or filled in at the end of the time that they used that oil well," McInnis says.

These small channels created mazes through the marshes that eventually eroded into open water.

New projections say Louisiana is losing land much faster than officials thought. Each mile of land that washes into the Gulf of Mexico costs the state; industry, infrastructure and populations are all disrupted.

Now, it has a plan to fight coastal land loss, but needs an estimated $90 billion to do it.

An oil and gas state, Louisiana has long relied on money from offshore sales to fund part of its budget. But the $90 billion price tag will require support from Congress. That's why the state's new Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, is urging officials like McInnis to sue oil and gas companies for that damage.

"Before we can ever have any hope of asking taxpayers around the country to come to Louisiana and help us restore our coast, we have to be able to show them that we did everything that we could, reasonably, that is within our power," Edwards says. "And certainly, you can't do that if you don't hold those people accountable who damaged the coast to begin with."

Edwards has said all the coastal parishes should file suits, or he'll do it for them.

But the governor's controversial idea is facing roadblocks.

Some parishes are resistant to suing the companies, which include powerhouses like ExxonMobil and Shell. On top of this, the state attorney general is attempting to stop the process.

Gifford Briggs, the acting president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, an industry lobbying group, says he doesn't think the lawsuits are necessary.

"We believe these lawsuits are driving investment out of Louisiana into other states and other communities [and] that it's harmful to Louisiana," he says.

Briggs says the state should do its job by enforcing its own coastal-use permit requirements, rather than turning to the courts. It's bad for business, he says.

Gov. Edwards' top lawyer, Matthew Block, disagrees.

"This is not about demonizing the oil and gas industry," he says.

Although oil and gas is the most important industry in the state, "that does not mean that we cannot hold the oil and gas industry responsible for destruction of the coast," Block says.

By some estimates, oil companies cause 60 percent of Louisiana's land loss. If one or more of the suits succeeds, the industry could owe billions of dollars.

Rob Verchick, an environmental law professor at Loyola University, says these suits could set an example. Many other states face problems like land loss and erosion.

"And they are struggling right now to address these issues," he says. "And so these lawsuits are going to occur whether our lawsuits in Louisiana go forward or not."

Copyright 2020 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.