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John Barry is the former vice president of the Board of Commissioners of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. (Photo courtesy of The Advocate)

John Barry is the former vice president of the Board of Commissioners of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. (Photo courtesy of The Advocate)

Barry defends oil, gas lawsuit

Last Modified: Sunday, February 23, 2014 3:29 AM

By Jim Beam / American Press

John Barry came to Lake Charles last week and made a convincing argument that oil, gas and pipeline companies should help finance restoration of Louisiana’s coast. Barry is the former member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East who came up with the idea of filing a lawsuit against nearly 100 of those companies.

Reaction to the lawsuit that was filed last July has been swift and fierce. Gov. Bobby Jindal came out swinging, saying the levee authority had been hijacked by trial lawyers. And that argument may be the strongest in what promises to become a major battle at the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature that begins March 10. One bill filed by state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, an industry supporter, would make it possible for Jindal to appoint a levee board more sympathetic to killing the lawsuit.

The trial lawyer argument has a familiar ring in these parts. Some local attorneys became overnight millionaires in 2000 when former state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub had them participate in the state’s lawsuit against tobacco companies. Their fees came from the tobacco companies, so there wasn’t much of a public uproar. However, the levee suit legal fees that would come from any possible industry settlement would reduce the amount of money available for coastal restoration.

Barry said hiring attorneys on a contingency basis was the only way a trial could be financed. Under a contingency fee arrangement, attorneys agree to represent plaintiffs and only get paid if they win. The attorneys also pay expert witness fees and other costs up front.

“No lawyer ‘hijacked’ us,” Barry said last August. “The suit was our (the levee board’s) idea, and I personally engaged in a long search for the best lawyer I could find. The industry forced us to sue by refusing to take corrective action.”

Another argument Jindal and other opponents will make against the lawsuit is that there is already a $50-billion, 50-year coastal restoration plan in place. It will be partially financed with additional federal oil and gas revenue in 2017.

Barry said that plan won’t completely compensate for the land loss that will occur over the next 50 years. He quotes from a 2012 coastal master plan that says, “A budget of $100 billion would allow us to achieve a net gain of land even under less optimistic coastal conditions.”

“Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast: A Crisis” is a report compiled by Restore Louisiana Now, a non-profit group formed by Barry. It contains aerial views of a number of coastal areas and shows the effect that oil and gas canals have had on coastal erosion over the years. Barry said a 2002 U.S. Geological Survey indicated that oil and gas “was responsible for 36 percent of land loss.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shares some of the blame for land losses caused by levees.

A public opinion poll done by Barry’s group — which opponents of the lawsuit will also try to discredit — shows that 77 percent of those who were surveyed believe loss of coastal wetlands and marshes is an issue that needs to be addressed. And 37 percent of those polled “strongly agree” that drilling by the oil and gas industry contributed to the land loss. Another 35 percent “somewhat agree.”

Seventy-four percent of those polled don’t want the Legislature to intervene in the lawsuit, and 90 percent say oil and gas companies should pay for restoring wetlands where they drilled. Sixty-two percent of those who were polled in Southwest Louisiana (Acadia, Calcasieu, Cameron and Jeff Davis parishes) don’t want the Legislature involved in trying to stop the suit.

Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, last August said the oil and gas industry has the state’s best interests at heart. He said the industry for the past two decades has implemented processes and dedicated resources to restoration and preservation efforts. Protection of the wetlands also protects critical oil and gas infrastructure located along the coast, he said.

Suit opponents insist the oil and gas industry followed state regulations that existed in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, so they aren’t responsible for the land loss. Barry counters that the state Department of Natural Resources was closely allied with the industry in those early years and the regulations weren’t enforced.

“At some point, we need to figure out whether someone who broke something and said they were going to fix it is going to be held to their promise,” Barry said last August.

Blaine LeCesne, a tort law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, talked with The Times-Picayune about the suit shortly after it was filed.

“This is such an unprecedented lawsuit,” he said. “There has never been a claim of this magnitude affecting such enormous amounts of land that has tested these statutes like this will.”

LeCesne offered what might be the best possible solution to this coastal restoration problem.

“I really think this is the ultimate goal of the levee authority here: to bring the oil companies to the bargaining table,” he said. “It’s a way of bringing attention and shedding some light on the problem, and it may very well lead to some joint resolution to assist in future coastal restoration efforts.”

The citizens would be well-served if that happened. Otherwise, it should be the job of the courts, not the governor or the Legislature, to resolve the issue.l

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com.

Posted By: Sandy Rosenthal On: 2/23/2014

Title: Founder of Levees.org

The experts, not legislators, should decide what damage was caused by Big Oil.

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