[Editor’s Note: SB 469 is headed to the Senate floor for a vote, possibly this week. On Tuesday, The Times-Picayune joined the likes of Zachary Richard, who penned the letter below, publishing this editorial: “Lawmakers should let flood protection authority lawsuit against oil, gas go forward.”]
Here are the facts:
1. Oil exploration began in the Louisiana marsh in the 1930s
2. In 1933, guidelines were formed by the state of Louisiana to protect the fragile marsh based upon the tacit understanding that oil companies would leave the state lands in the condition in which they found them.
3. Since the 1930s Louisiana has lost a land mass to coastal erosion equivalent to the state of Delaware. The more than 10,000 miles (4x + across the USA) of oil exploration canals are one of the contributing if not the major factor of coastal erosion (a fact no-one contests).
4. A lawsuit filed in 2013 by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (levee board) alleges that the drilling activities of 97 oil and gas companies damaged Louisiana’s coast and vulnerable wetlands, and seeks remuneration for the unrepaired damage caused over the years.
5. A bill sponsored in the current legislative session, S.B. 531 would have effectively undermined the lawsuit by preventing retroactively a constitutionally mandated levee board from suing an energy company for environmental damages (the legislation also initially banned parishes from filing similar suits). This bill was to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 29, but was withdrawn because it would not have passed.
6. In a scheme that seems to me to be of very dubious nature, its main provisions were included in another bill sponsored by Senator Robert Adley (R-Benton). The amendment added by Sen. Bret Allain (R-Franklin), which is really the heart of S.B. 469, would prevent a levee board from suing an energy company for environmental damages. This new revised S.B. 469 was not presented to the Judiciary Committee, but to Natural Resources and passed on May 1.
Now let me tell you what I think. First of all, the creation of this bill seems to me to be extremely suspicious. Its fundamental proposal would not have passed the Judiciary Committee, so it was ponied into another bill and sent to Natural Resources. Funny business.
Even more disturbing to me is that S.B. 469 seems to be a shameful attempt on the part of the oil and gas industry to refuse its responsibility and to shift the burden of restoring the coast that it has participated in destroying to the taxpaying citizens of Louisiana. To confuse the matter, S.B. 469 does not specify whether its conditions will be implemented retroactively as did the old S.B. 531. So which is it?
The bottom line is that this issue belongs in the courts. The attempt by big oil and their allies to prevent constitutionally mandated levee boards from pursuing legal means of redress for damages caused to our common coast is unconscionable. I am ashamed. I am well aware of the economic advantages that our state has enjoyed due to the oil industry. Even though I am a tree-hugging Buddist with vegetarian tendencies, I am also a life long resident of Lafayette Parish and I do not wish the Oil and Gas business harm. I do, however, expect that it conduct itself like a good citizen and not a bandit. Everyone admits that oil exploration canals are a significant if not the major cause of coastal erosion. The responsibility of the oil companies is something that should be decided by the courts, not in some back room deal with the governor. Defenders of the bill pretend that if the lawsuit goes forward, oil companies will leave Louisiana. We all know that won’t happen until there is not a drop of oil left.
Hear me well: I drive a car and have a tractor. I am writing this on a computer. I am a one-man global warming machine. Many of my friends work for oil companies. My hands are not clean. BUT, I cannot support the notion that oil companies, which have derived such huge profits from Louisiana for decades, refuse to accept their responsibility (although I am sure that many do).
S.B. 469 is a bad bill. Regarding the levee boards, we need qualified scientists and non-partisan members whose sole priority should be the protection of the people of Louisiana, not political cronies at the beck and call of the governor (which is what Adley wants), whoever the governor should be. S.B. 469 needs to be killed, and the question of responsibility for the damages to the coast subsequent to oil and gas exploration resolved in the courts.
This is important because it goes to the heart of the question of who we are. The coastal marshes are a huge part of life here and we are losing them at an alarming rate. It will take a huge cultural and financial effort to save this land for our children and to protect ourselves from the next hurricane. Oil companies have to be a part of the solution to the problem they have helped create. It is not the business of the legislature to allot responsibility. You cannot (should not) create legislation to retroactively preclude someone’s right to redress damages because you do not like the nature of the claim. That’s why we have courts.
For the sake of my grandson, please defeat S.B. 469.
Zachary Richard, who lives in Scott, is an award-winning singer-songwriter, cultural activist and environmentalist.