Bobby Jindal Presents “The Creature From the Oil-Black Lagoon”

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

There’s a lot of swampland on the Gulf Coast. A lot of that swampland has been polluted with oil. And a lot of that oil has oozed into the swamps of the legal system which is brimming over with lawsuits brought against the extraction industry. BP’s Deepwater disaster is only the most high profile case. It certainly brought a lot of public attention to the parlous state of the Gulf of Mexico and its hundreds of miles of vulnerable coastline – attention BP and its energy cohorts don’t want.

Things haven’t been going well for BP in the litigation that flowed up out of its underwater well along with all that oil. It has found it rough going even in the famously conservative and business-friendly Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals which has consistently swatted down the company’s attempts to wriggle off the liability hook. But the oil industry is nothing if not industrious. A business that hunts for oil thousands of feet below the surface of the sea will work just as hard to find a political solution to its legal problems. Now, thanks to Louisiana  governor Bobby Jindal, the oil business has what it hopes is a magic cloak to ward of further lawsuits.

Last week Jindal signed legislation designed to kill a lawsuit against almost 100 oil and gas companies.

The lawsuit was filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority in an attempt to get oil and gas companies to pony up billions of dollars for damage caused by exploration and production in the vulnerable wetlands around New Orleans – wetlands that play a vital role in protecting the city from what the suit describes as the mortal threat of hurricane storm surges. The stakes for New Orleans could not be higher. The Authority filed suit to avert the dire consequences of the environmental degradation of the region’s coastline. The suit demanded that energy companies “honor their obligations to safeguard and restore the coastal treasures entrusted to them and from which they have so richly profited.” The Flood Protection Authority described the measures it demanded in its suit as essential to preserving the future of the state and its biggest city. The coastal barriers it sought to preserve have been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime. Without immediate action to reverse the loss of wetlands and restore the region’s natural defenses, many of Louisiana’s coastal communities will vanish into the sea. Meanwhile, the Authority says, inland cities and towns that once were well insulated from the sea will be left to face the ever-rising tide at their doorsteps.”

Jindal’s signature has now thrown the future of that suit, and other similar actions, into doubt. The new law is specifically intended to stop the lawsuit in its tracks. It would limit enforcement of the state’s coastal zone program to the state Department of Natural Resources, a parish, a parish district attorney or the state attorney general.  The law previously allowed any government agency to file claims. The oil and gas industry lobbied strenuously to get the new law passed. Apparently the industry’s efforts were more persuasive than the state’s own attorney general who urged the governor to veto the bill, arguing that the language was both so vague and so sweeping that it would prohibit local governments from filing lawsuits against energy companies for past or future actions. A passel of legal scholars also weighed in warning that the bill would nullify lawsuits already filed against BP for damages from the oil spill by dozens of governmental entities. Environmentalists and urban planners are aghast.  The industry, on the other hand, was crowing about its bill, describing it as “a huge victory for the oil and gas industry as well as the economy for the state of Louisiana.”

The bill demonstrates how far and how deep the energy industry’s tentacles reach into the machinery of Louisiana politics. The Deepwater catastrophe brought a lot of unwelcome attention to the long-intertwined relationship between the oil and gas industry and Louisiana’s politicians. The new law is designed to restore that relationship to its historical centrality in the state’s political ecology. Whether it survives the inevitable appeals (it almost certainly won’t) is irrelevant. As a piece of of intimidating muscle flexing it’s in a class of its own: Let there be no doubt of who calls the shots in the state.

Jindal defended the bill by saying it creates “a more fair and predictable legal environment.” The good people of New Orleans can sleep easier now, secure in the knowledge that at least the legal landscape is predictable. The levees be damned.

Note: The Times-Picayune is, as always, doing yeoman’s work covering this story.

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