If your opponents in a lawsuit — in this case, all-powerful oil and gas companies — are trying the case in the court of public opinion, what’s your best response?

Law firms seeking to force energy interests to pay for damaging the Louisiana coast answered that question March 13, unveiling a 143-year timeline and supporting documents.

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Photo by Robin May
This aerial photograph shows canals oil and gas companies cut through Louisiana's wetlands. The SLFPA-E's suit claims the companies ravaged the state's coastal landscape, which is the first line of defense for South Louisiana's communities against the destructive forces of hurricanes.

It was a bid to win public backing for the suit — including support from state lawmakers who might try to derail it in the legislative session ahead.

Some of the documents are laws and regulations governing industry activities. Others show the state’s efforts at enforcement. And a third set are internal industry documents revealing that some of the companies knew they were breaking laws and damaging wetlands.

Members of the firms acknowledged the timeline was a strategy to win hearts and minds, not part of the material that will be entered into evidence in court on behalf of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, the amalgamation of former levee boards that filed the lawsuit. Their contention is that damage to the coast greatly increased the cost of flood protection and that the energy companies should share the burden.

Lawyers said the documents disprove claims by industry groups that the companies didn’t break the law, didn’t know they were breaking the laws and that state regulators never tried to enforce the laws.

“The purpose of this is to demonstrate the truth, and the truth is the industry’s position is false,” said John Barry, who lost his seat on the Flood Protection Authority-East after spearheading the lawsuit. He now continues his crusade as head of the newly formed nonprofit Restore Louisiana Now.

“They say they complied with the law; these documents prove they did not. It’s also crystal clear that companies understood these laws,” Barry said.

The interactive graphic (for the full effect and all supporting documents, go here) employs a color-coded scheme that allows visitors to follow the flood authority’s argument.

Blue dots bring up the pertinent laws. Green dots reference efforts at enforcement as well as reports and articles detailing the industry’s negative impacts on wetlands, and red dots connect to internal corporate documents showing the companies had knowledge of the laws and, in some cases, were aware of their on-going violation.

At least three bills have been filed by lawmakers opposed to the suit. Barry said he has been traveling the state in recent weeks talking to lawmakers in their home offices as well as in Baton Rouge to make his case.

He said the timeline (re-created below) will help.

 

1870

La. Law of Servitude of Drain

Renders it unlawful to make the flow of water more burdensome

 

1899

U.S. Rivers and Harbors Act

It shall not be lawful for any person to impair the usefulness of any levee built by the United States

 

1907

La. Supreme Court: Oil companies broke the law, damaged the land

“...oil and water flowed over the lands of the plaintiff, killing his trees, destroying his crops and pasturage, and polluting the fresh water

 

1920

La. Dept. of Conservation Rule 14 re: Conservation of Crude Oil

Fresh water, whether above or below the surface, shall be protected from pollution, whether in drilling or plugging.

 

1931

Shell: Facility discharges “unlawful,” “killing the timber and vegetation”

“...the salt water has already destroyed approximately 11,500 board feet of timber, for which, in all probability, a damage claim will be made

 

1932

Industry report: “We are only ‘kidding’ ourselves” about waste discharges

“...the statutes of several states make it obligatory...to prevent the escape of waste from our properties...It’s only a question of time...”

1933

La. Dept. of Conservation Regs: Protection of Coastal Waters

Prohibits discharge “into the coastal or other waters of the Sate any waste...which will chage the chemical composition of the waters.”

1943

La. Stream Control Commission Amended Rues re: Oil Field Wastes

Prohibits discharge of oil field waste into any body of water if “any beneficial animal or vegetable life in said waters may be destroyed.”

1944

La. Supreme Court: The Texas Company’s oil field practices illegal

The company “dispersed such a large quantity of crude oil around their operations that it spread...ocver these waters for miles.”

1947

The Texas Company claims La. regs illegal, US Suprememe Court disagrees

Oil company seeks injunction, saying state regulators could cause it to suffer “immediate and irreparable injury, loss and damage.”

1947

La. regulators: 108 citations to oil and gas companies within three months

1952

Army Corps Permit: Operators must maintain canals, not damage banks

No “ridges...or deep holes that may...cause injury to navigable channels or to the banks of the waterway shall be left...”

1953

Regulators call meeting with local industry leaders, oil and gas companies

“Canals that the oil companies have dredged... drain our fresh water out so fast... it kills all our fresh water marsh, and all we had now is gone.”

1958

Magnolia Petroleum: 73 out of 79 leases cited for violations

1958

Magnolia Petroleum re: “Cutting the sand bank” at Cameron Meadows

“Fresh water marshes... have been chabged to salt marshes in this way... Damages on the order of $100,000 could be involved...”

1964

La. Wildlife and Fisheries begins aerial oil and gas field inspections

“The most striking indicator of surface brine discharge in inland oil fields is the trail of dead trees, shrubs, and grasses.”

1967

La. Dept. of Conservation Amendment to Statewide Order 29-B

Requires that disposal wells have “a casing and cementing program...which would ensure adequate protection of fresh water.”

1970

Humble Oil: “What to do when cited”

“Do not admit blame - personally or on the part of the Company.”

1970

Petroleum Engineers report: “Pollution Problems in the ‘Oil Patch’”

“...a quick shuffle of electric in nearly any area will show that the regulations for [well] casings are not being adhered to.”

1972

Clean Water Act

Provides a framework for the US Army Corps of Engineers to create new regulations and issue permits for various oil and gas activities.

1972

Clean Water Act

Provides a framework for the US Army Corps of Engineers to create new regulations and issue permits for various oil and gas activities.

1974

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regulations

Require operators of canals and other oil and gas operations to maintain their structure or work as originally proposed to the Corps.

1980

La. Dept. of Natural Resources, Coastal Zone Management Division Regs

Requires oil and gas sites to be “cleared, revegetated, detoxified, and otherwise restored as near as practicable to their original condition...”

1980

Shell Oil: “All of these practices are flagrant violations of the law”

“Vegetation kill is evident around facility pit areas due to oil and saltwater leaks; oil is standing...in surrounding wetland areas...”

1982

Sun Oil cited for draining “produced water, oil, and grease” into marsh

1984

Shell Oil: “Flagrant violations” causing “high costs to taxpayers”

“Operators must begin to design and close pits properly or lawsuits will become a severe problem in the future.”

1986

La. Amendmenty to Statewode Order 29-B

“...pits which are not to be utilized in the operation of oil and gas...must be permanently closes...within 36 months of...this Amendment.”

1986

Unocal: “95 such facilities are known to have...contamination problems.

“An additional 220 facilities are suspected of having such problems.”

1987

KEDCO Oil fined for “severe damage” to 4,088 acres of wetlands

“...produced water discharges from a pipe protruding from the pit levee...”

1987

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regs re: Oil and Gas Permits

Permit holder must “maintain the activity authorized by this permit in good condition and in conformance with the terms and conditions of this permit.

1987

Quintana Petroleum cited after creating “dead area” in the marsh

“...oil leaking from the reserve pit...fish flesh probably tainted to taste...”

1989

Mid-Continent and Gas: Louisiana Environmental Impact Report

“...effects of canal development tend to be overwhelming cause of wetland losses within the field...”

1999

State report: 29,726 abandoned oilfield facilities pose threat of oil spill

2013

C.P.R.A.: “Industrial negligence” contributed to land loss

“...canals and pipelines...criss-crossed South Louisiana...disastrously altering the natural hydrology of the region...”

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