NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When a south Louisiana flood board and a few coastal parishes took oil and gas companies to court over coastal wetland loss it looked like a new chapter might be opening in Louisiana: government agencies taking political risks to hold a major industry accountable for environmental damage.
Fans of old fashioned Louisiana politics can take heart, however. Important questions on whether and how “Big Oil” should pay for its purported harm are being muddied by partisan personality clashes, turf wars and whiffs of patronage.
Still, that the story is playing out after three years seems something of a miracle.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed suit in the summer of 2013 against dozens of oil, gas and pipeline companies. Their drilling and dredging activities, it claimed, contributed to the loss of coastal wetlands that form a vital hurricane buffer for New Orleans.
Then-Gov. Bobby Jindal joined industry leaders and officials from various levels of government with harsh criticisms of the suit. They called it an unwarranted attack on a major employer, frivolous litigation aimed at doing little more than lining lawyers’ pockets. Jindal acted, with some success, to remove supporters of the suit from the board. Lawmakers debated laws aimed at killing the suit.
A federal judge has ruled against the board, but the board persevered with an appeal.
Meanwhile, four parishes have filed suits raising related issues in state courts. And now, the state’s role in those lawsuits is the subject in the latest in a series of skirmishes between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Both men moved to have the state intervene in the parish lawsuits and Edwards has urged the industry to work toward a global settlement.
But any sign that the two men might be in accord over the lawsuits has disappeared.
As first reported by The Advocate and WWL-TV, Edwards’ administration signed a contract with former lawmaker, Natchitoches attorney and top Edwards fund-raiser Taylor Townsend to work on the Jefferson Parish lawsuit.
Last week, Landry issued a letter from his chief deputy counsel saying the Attorney General’s Office was rejecting the contract, finding it “unacceptable on multiple grounds.” Those grounds including that it was “vague and overly broad” and that it would effectively result in Landry’s office yielding authority to Townsend.
The letter also claimed conflicts of interest, noting that Townsend subcontracted law firms already involved in the litigation. And he said the potentially lucrative fee arrangement for Townsend violated state law.
Edwards and Landry have held their respective offices for well under a year but they’ve clashed before over numerous issues regarding the authority of the attorney general, the elected executive branch official who is the state’s chief lawyer, and the governor, the elected head of the executive branch.
Edwards’ executive counsel, Matthew Block, said in an emailed statement last week that “the attorney general simply does not have the authority to pick who represents the state or decide whether to approve a contract for legal services.”
Block had earlier rejected any idea that the selection of the lawyers was the result of “cronyism” when he was interviewed for The Advocate and WWL-TV story about the Townsend contract. Townsend and the other lawyers were hired for their legal acumen, he said.
The Attorney General’s Office letter didn’t address the fact that Townsend was a fund-raiser for the governor. Landry left that to the industry.
“Gov. Edwards made headlines again when news outlets revealed the administration’s attempt to hire his top political supporters to represent the state in these coastal suits,” the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association said on its website. “The legally questionable contracts authorized by the Edwards administration could generate billions in legal fees for plaintiff lawyers.”
Perhaps, someday, Edwards will be able to say those lawyers played an important role in saving Louisiana’s coast. For now, however, their hiring has provided public relations fodder for the oil and gas industry.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press Reporter based in New Orleans.
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