Barry defends oil, gas lawsuit

By 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.