Thursday, November 21, 2013

No time to rest

St. Louis Cemetery
St. Louis Cemetery from the fourth floor window of the Basin Street Station

This morning, at a ridiculously stupid hour, The Lens hosted a brief interview with John Barry about his role in the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority's controversial lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies operating in Louisiana.  The event took place at the restored Basin Street Station. The Governor refused to reappoint Barry to SFLPA-E at the expiration of his term this year because of his displeasure with the lawsuit.  Barry has founded a nonprofit advocacy group to continue advocating on behalf of Louisiana's fragile coastal environment called Restore Louisiana Now.

If you've been following the story of this lawsuit and the Governor's subsequent acts of political retribution, you probably wouldn't learn anything new from this talk.

Barry described the reasoning behind the lawsuit.   The SLFPA-E is charged with protecting a vulnerable part of Louisiana from storm surge flooding.  The cost of maintaining this protection is going to increase significantly for the foreseeable future and become impossible altogether unless action is taken immediately to save the vanishing coastline.

The state has nowhere near the funds available to meet these costs without significant help.  Because oil and gas exploration has had such a significant effect on wetlands destruction, it follows that the companies who profited by this activity should participate in mitigating the damage.

According to Barry, the State Coastal Protection Authority had been in negotiations with oil industry representatives for a time.  He didn't offer much in the way of details about what sort of deal might have been worked out but it was clear that the slow progress of those talks played a hand in SLFPA-E's decision to go ahead with the lawsuit.

There was further commentary on the details of the suit none of which hasn't already appeared in various reports.  Key to the suit is a long standing law covering "Servitude of Drainage" which, in addition to being the title of a kick-ass Megadeath album, is a.. well here Bob Marshall explained it months ago.
By turning marsh to open water, the projects increased the amount of storm surge that moves into the metro area during tropical storms and hurricanes. The suit claims that violates a principle of civil law called “servitude of drainage,” which prohibits one person from increasing the flow of water onto someone else’s property. The properties do not have to be contiguous.

While most of the attention in this case centers around the loss of land at or above the surface, the filing also lists 10 other oil industry impacts, including road dumps, watercraft navigation and impoundments.

Is “servitude of drainage” a reach for the plaintiffs?

Not at all. This is a well-established point of civil law going back to Roman times; it’s been a regular issue in Louisiana courts since people started clearing low-lying coastal areas for development.

Of course, the key here is proving that the loss of wetlands increased the flow of water against the authority’s levees.
One interesting quote from Barry came during the Q&A.  In answering a (fairly standard on this topic) question about how soon will it be too late to save what's left of the coast and how much money do we need, Barry talked about the State of Louisiana's 50 billion dollar Coastal Master Plan. Barry described that price tag as "a political number" meaning, among other things, that it's probably a gross underestimate.

Asked whether Senator Mary Landrieu had taken a position on the lawsuit, Barry allowed that she has been "as supportive as she can be politically."  Interestingly, Barry says he has a meeting scheduled soon with Mary's brother who has, thus far, been silent on the issue.

In a bit of a surprise this afternoon the board voted not to suspend the lawsuit as Barry's replacement on the board had recently suggested.  If Mitch does make any public statement now, he won't have the luxury of speaking on a moot issue.

Update: Mark Moseley cites several recent reports and commentaries which seem to indicate a "grand bargain" between the state and the industry is currently in the works.
Barry already spent thousands of words essentially appealing to Jindal to take the credit. Take the lead on Louisiana’s great existential issue. Guide the conversation about coastal accountability.  Preside over a “grand bargain” in which a booming industry would concede a slice of its enormous profits to the equally enormous costs of the Master Plan. Do these things, Barry wrote, and Jindal can become perhaps “the greatest governor in Louisiana’s history.”

It’s an incomprehensible prospect (on so many levels). But heck, if Nixon can go to China, perhaps Jindal can go to Chevron.

One thing is for certain: there is now more political momentum towards a deal to force Big Oil to  fix the coast they helped shatter than at any other time in recent memory.

A few months ago Yancey Duplantis of Hornbeck Offshore, a transport firm that services the petroleum industry, responded to the levee board’s lawsuit by saying: “Negotiation, not litigation, is the answer.”

I would be very skeptical of the suggestion that a Jindal-negotiated settlement will do anything other than protect the interests of the Chevronese.  Given what we know about the immense cost of fixing our problem and assuming a mutually agreed upon settlement will produce a number significantly short of that cost I'm less inclined to shout out the praise.

Upperdate: Some post-pub editing.  I never proofread anything. 

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