From the moment the regional flood protection authority filed an environmental lawsuit against nearly 100 oil and gas companies, members of the board have been the targets of intense political pressure from the governor, his minions and state lawmakers. Now, finally, some are starting to push back.
The lawsuit, filed in late July, seeks to make 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies pay their share — and only their share —
of the costs of restoring lost wetlands in southeast Louisiana and protecting metro New Orleans from the increased threat of flooding. Those costs are a direct result of thousands of miles of oil and gas canals carved out of south Louisiana's wetlands over the past 80 years. The oil industry admits this much; it just wants taxpayers to foot the bill.
Given that the suit could surpass the tobacco litigation in damage awards and legal impact if it goes to trial, it's understandable that the energy industry — through its lapdog, Gov. Bobby Jindal — would pull out all the stops to quash the litigation as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. Jindal and his coastal czar, Garret Graves, want the flood authority's president and vice president, Tim Doody and John Barry, removed from the board. The terms of both men have expired, but they can be reappointed. The political pressure in response to the suit has been relentless and, until recently, one-sided.
Last week, two prominent voices defended both men and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) against Jindal's attacks: former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who supported levee board reforms in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; and Ruthie Frierson, founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, which initiated the grassroots push for levee board reform after the storm.
Citing Doody and Barry's "exceptional leadership" on the board, Frierson penned a letter to The New Orleans Advocate urging the SLFPA-E nominating committee and Jindal to reappoint both men. "Doody and Barry are recognized at the local, state and national levels as experts in the area of flood protection, and with their experience and commitment to this vital cause, are in the best position to continue to champion and to sustain safe and reliable flood protection for southeast Louisiana," Frierson wrote.
Noting Jindal's efforts to oust Barry and Doody and the sordid political history of levee boards before Katrina, Blanco told the Advocate, "It looks like we're going full circle. Instead of going forward, we're going backward." If Jindal and lawmakers succeed in unraveling the lawsuit, Blanco predicted flood protection efforts will "go back to the old way of doing business and having people that are not independent thinkers. And that's the way it's been going anyway on many levels, not just the levee boards."
The SLFPA-E nominating committee is comprised (mostly) of politically independent, professionally qualified folks. It is chaired by Frierson's neighbor, businessman Jay Lapeyre, who no doubt will give her comments greater weight than will Jindal. Also on the nominating committee is the dean of LSU's College of Engineering, which recently received a $2 million grant from Chevron, a named defendant in the lawsuit. I'm sure the timing of Chevron's donation was coincidental. It will be no coincidence if the dean, whose university is under Jindal's thumb, votes against reappointing Doody and Barry.
Meanwhile, Graves continues to mince no words in parroting the Jindal Administration line. "You cannot map the scenarios that happen with this lawsuit and come to any conclusion other than that this lawsuit goes away," he told the Advocate. "If this board can't figure that out, then there is a 100 percent chance that this board will be changed in terms of the members and that the Legislature will be acting on this."
Since Graves likes to speak in absolutes, let me sum things up in terms that he will find familiar: If he, Jindal and Big Oil succeed in quashing the suit, taxpayers will have to pay billions to cover the energy industry's share of responsibility for coastal land loss and higher flood protection costs. If he can't figure that out, then there is a 100 percent chance that he is a political hack.