Xerxes Wilson / Houma Courier
Environmental activists are carrying water from the Gulf of Mexico to pour on Gov. Bobby Jindal's lawn in protest of what they perceive as an imbalance between the state's industrial and environmental priorities.
The group began its journey in the oilfield of South Lafourche quickly coming upon signs of the area's close and complicated bond with the energy industry.
They walked past one-third of Lafourche Parish's property tax collection contained in just the towering offshore service vessels traversing Port Fourchon.
Upon entering Golden Meadow, they crossed the 16-foot levee in south Lafourche, the construction of the ring system to its current height was only possible with the local taxes generated by the financially flush energy industry.
Their trip also took them past some of the most heavily oiled shoreline during the BP oil spill. They also walked near some of the state's most historic inshore oilfields of half a century ago. Once freshwater marsh, patches of these wetlands were gashed by oilfield canals hastening saltwater intrusion and eventually the transition to open water.
“The environmental movement in Louisiana is the cumulative effect of a broad range of environmental trade-offs that have been made through the years. A bill is coming due. That is what the levee board lawsuit brought into focus,” said a blistered Mike Stagg, Lafayette-based activist and once candidate for governor, as he reached Thibodaux.
On Tuesday, Stagg and a friend were tag-teaming the trip. One drove their white pickup about a mile ahead on La. 1 while the other trudged the water along. The idea is to bring together others along the way as they carry their so-called “troubled waters” to the Governor's Mansion, arriving on Sunday.
Stagg spoke of a more active environmental consciousness in the state, fueled by concerns of fracking in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale in St. Tammany Parish and the Bayou Corne sinkhole in Assumption Parish, water contamination concerns in Lake Peigneur, and the ease with which storm surge now devastates once secure coastal communities.
This growing consciousness was thrown into focus by a New Orleans area levee board's landmark lawsuit against nearly 100 oil, gas and pipeline companies for damage to the wetlands south of New Orleans through the decades. Fewer wetlands lead to open water making a levee authority's task of providing surge protection and maintaining the system more difficult and expensive.
“That lawsuit was the most significant political act in the last 50 years. The acts of the governor confirmed that,” Stagg said.
The acts he refers was swift opposition by the Governor's Office and large segments of the Legislature, which ultimately passed a bill meant to scuttle the levee board's authority to file such a lawsuit.
Jindal signed the bill despite warnings from legal scholars and the state attorney general that it could nullify or delay cities' and parishes' claims against BP for the 2010 oil spill.
A judge will likely have to decide whether that is the case. As of now, it's also unclear if the bill will affect litigation against BP, though the measure's main sponsor Bret Allain, R-Franklin was making the rounds in recent weeks assuring locals that wasn't the intent.
The lawsuit has few supporters among politicians in the oil patch; local legislators aided in the charge to kill it.
Stagg and others see this as elected officials living a Louisiana tradition of politicians carrying the water for oil and gas at the expense of others.
WHAT IS FAIR?
“It's not that simple here,” argues South Lafourche Levee District Director Windell Curole. “It's not just black and white — the oil companies against the environment.”
Though Curole's levee system is threatened by degrading marsh similarly to the plaintiffs, he sees the lawsuit as unfair.
Many of the pipeline canals and rig slips that have hastened the conversion of marsh to open water were dredged at a time when economics ruled entirely over environment, he said. It wasn't until the 1970s that regulation began to find some balance, though many complain that enforcement has historically lacked.
“Different things were accepted by both law and society at the time. We have different standards now,” Curole said, questioning the fairness of including unregulated activity in the same thought as knowing violations of a permit.
He also takes issue with the selection of defendants. Some didn't dredge a canal but might have used it. He also sees going after one industry as unfair when others also played a role.
Curole notes the oilfield is a deeply rooted part of Terrebonne and Lafourche's history and future.
“We cannot collect the kind of taxes to build the protection we have right now without a tremendous economy that oil support and tugboat places, Port Fourchon and what it does for our people,” he said.
In an economy competing to host segments of the largest outfits in production, drilling and oilfield service, Terrebonne's economic reliance on oil and gas is something Parish President Michel Claudet says has played into his considerations of what is best for the parish.
“We benefit so much from the oil industry in our economy. Right now, Houma is booming,” Claudet said. “I would be very hesitant to be adverse to that position at the present time. That doesn't mean that given certain information I might not change my mind.”
Stagg and others deny that claim, arguing Louisiana's port infrastructure and easy access to deepwater reserves carry far more weight than the threat of a lawsuit.
The state has a $50 billion master plan to stem the problem, but its still largely hypothetical, mostly unfunded and the erosion of wetlands protecting coastal communities continues to accelerate.
From the governor's advisor on coastal issues down to parish presidents, there is the sentiment that industry has some part to play in the solution. It's unclear what that role will be and what will motivate an enterprise driven by profit into that action.
LAWYERS AND MONEY
Allain shares the same concerns that the lawsuit is unfair, but more importantly, he said, levee boards shouldn't have standing to file such a suit.
“Their attorneys were looking to get 30 percent of several billion dollars,” Allain said also complaining that it was an appointed, not elected board, filing the suit. “We are trying to get the most money for the coast. We are trying to get the proper plaintiff in place and with a guarantee the money will be used for restoration.”
In his view, the proper plaintiffs are individual parishes through their coastal zone management authority. This leads to litigation for individual permit violations like when company doesn't properly fill or maintain a canal.
Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes have sued under this authority, but local officials say no one should expect Terrebonne and Lafourche to join independently.
Claudet argues its up to landowners to take action. Oil and gas companies, Apache Corp. and ConocoPhillips, own some two-thirds of the land surface in Terrebonne, parish officials estimate.
Claudet is also hedging the parish's position on the possibility that all coastal zone management challenges could be lumped into one class action suit that the parish wouldn't seek to instigate but could join if it decided to. Even that would possibly be derailed by those who control or own most of the coastal zone, he said.
Claudet doesn't see a grand coming together of industry and coastal restoration officials in the immediate future.
“The opportunity to work together to assist in the restoration of the coast is probably too late. I'd love to see the ability for that to happen in Terrebonne, but I am not so certain it can,” Claudet said.
Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph said she is believes talk generated by the lawsuit will bring industry to the table, ideally for a long-term payment partnership.
Some feel killing the lawsuit will diminish any leverage to bring a monied and partially culpable industry to such a table. Others, such as Curole, say the incentive could be industry's now-exposed infrastructure.
“They have structures that were built for freshwater environments that are turning into Gulf environments,” Curole said. “There are things like that we can work together on.”