By RUSSEL L. HONORÉMAY 28, 2014
BATON ROUGE, La. — After decades of watching our state being ravaged to support the nation’s oil and gas addiction, the people of Louisiana have had enough.
Last summer, an independent government authority responsible for flood protection for the New Orleans area sued more than 90 oil and gas companies for damaging coastal marshes that protect the city.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East didn’t specify the damages it sought. But the cost of rebuilding and protecting the state’s coastal marshlands has been estimated at roughly $50 billion.
Now those industries and their political allies here in the state capital are trying to kill this legal challenge by passing a law that would restrict the authority’s power to sue over violations of state coastal permits. Proponents have said it would provide defendants with grounds to seek the lawsuit’s dismissal.
This isn’t the first effort to kill this lawsuit. More than a dozen bills have been introduced in the State Legislature since March to effectively do so. All but one has stalled. A final effort to restrict the authority’s power to sue these industries is expected to come Thursday before the State House of Representatives, where it has the support of the Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and legislative allies of oil and gas. The bill has already passed the Senate. The House needs to defeat the bill.
That won’t assure us that the oil and gas industries will fix the damage they’ve caused to our coast over decades. But it will give the citizens of Louisiana their day in court to stand up and say, “We’ve had enough.”
The fertile marshes, tidal flats and barrier islands of coastal Louisiana are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. These coastal lands provide essential habitat to migratory and native waterfowl. They are home to shrimp, crabs and oysters that feed the nation. They are the nursery for the rich bounty of marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and the source of tens of thousands of jobs.
To the people of metropolitan New Orleans and south Louisiana, these coastal lands are also something much more: the first line of defense against the single greatest threat we face — catastrophic flooding because of hurricanes. But these lands have been vanishing before our eyes.
From 1932 to 2000, Louisiana lost an estimated 1,900 square miles of coastal lands, roughly the size of the state of Delaware. We’re on track to lose another 700 square miles over the next few decades unless we stop what the United States Geological Survey has called the highest rate of wetlands loss in the nation.
Oil, gas and pipeline companies are responsible for a substantial amount of this loss. Over many decades, they cut more than 10,000 miles of canal and pipeline routes through Louisiana’s coastal lands, chopping them up and exposing them to erosion. The authority says in its lawsuit that this network of canals and pipelines functioned as “a mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction.”
With each acre lost, another vital layer of flood protection goes with it, exposing the region to the force and fury of hurricanes and storms, impairing the effectiveness of our flood defenses and making the task of safeguarding New Orleans and the surrounding area more difficult and more costly.
The people of Louisiana cannot bear this loss alone, nor should we.
The levee authority was one of two created in 2006, the year after levee failures left New Orleans flooded when Hurricane Katrina struck. Outraged by a long history of cronyism and ineptitude in the management of our levee system, Louisiana voters agreed to authorize the legislature to create professional levee authorities independent of exactly the kind of political pressure our governor and some in our legislature are trying to apply. Nearly 81 percent of voters statewide supported the plan; in New Orleans, more than 90 percent did.
Today citizens of every political stripe across the state are standing up to demand that these industries respect the environment and protect our coastline, water and air.
The oil and gas industries and pipeline companies aren’t responsible for all of Louisiana’s coastal loss. Nobody claims that they are. It’s important, though, that the industry be held to account for the damage it has done. Louisiana’s coastline is a vital part of the nation’s defense against natural disasters. It’s time we started treating it so.
Russel L. Honoré, a retired Army lieutenant general, was commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, overseeing military relief efforts following the 2005 hurricanes that struck New Orleans and the gulf coast.