NEW ORLEANS -- Attorney General Jeff Landry has intervened in 39 coastal erosion lawsuits brought by three parishes against oil and gas companies, wading into the controversial “legacy lawsuit” issue that has dogged the state for years.
Landry is asserting his constitutional right to make claims on the state’s behalf for coastal permit violations by oil and gas companies dating back decades. In that respect, he would be joining Jefferson, Plaquemines and Cameron parishes in their lawsuits that are already making claims that oil and gas drilling, pipelines, historic pollution and dredging of access canals caused billions of dollars in land loss over time.
But in so doing, Landry appears to be pitting himself against the aggressive private attorneys who brought the lawsuits in the first place. The motions filed in court Monday assert that the attorney general's claims "supersede" those made by the parishes "as though made by the state through the Attorney General in the first instance."
What's more, Landry only makes claims for damages the oil and gas companies made dredging canals, not for any of the waste pits and pollution alleged by the parishes.
John Carmouche, the lead attorney for all three parishes and the most prolific purveyor of legacy lawsuits in the state, said he would not let Landry's intervention deter him.
"We have determined it does not affect the parish claims," Carmouche said. "The parishes have been fighting the major oil companies for three years and will continue to fight to restore the coast of their parish."
Landry's office did not notify Carmouche or the other attorneys representing the three parishes before intervening. Landry ouldn't say more about how his staff would interact with the existing legal teams or if the private lawyers would still be in line to collect large legal fees if they win.
But Landry's spokeswoman did say that he would not have intervened if he had planned to simply dismiss the cases, as many in the oil and gas industry have wanted.
The move left the parishes' legal teams scrambling Tuesday. Led by Baton Rouge law firm Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello, teams of “legacy lawsuit” attorneys have been seeking millions of dollars for old oil and gas pollution on private land and have, since 2013, been making the same claims on behalf of parishes for coastal land loss.
“Continuing to allow these parties to steer the public policy of Louisiana regarding our coastal restoration and protection is unhelpful,” Landry said in a statement Tuesday. “We cannot allow these differing, and competing interests, to push claims which collectively impact the public policy for our coast and entire State. Louisiana’s public policy should be dictated by the rule of law and its elected officials.”
The Carmouche team has brought 21 cases in Plaquemines Parish, 11 in Cameron Parish and seven in Jefferson Parish. It was also hired in January to assert claims on behalf of St. Bernard Parish, although the parish council is still debating how to proceed and no claims have been filed there yet.
Led by the father-and-son duo of Don and John Carmouche, plaintiffs’ attorneys have poured millions of dollars into defeating pro-oil candidates – such as U.S. Sen. David Vitter in last year’s election against Gov. John Bel Edwards -- and into the campaigns of parish council and judgeship candidates who would support such coastal lawsuits.
Meanwhile, pro-oil and gas politicians have been trying to undermine the lawsuits. In Plaquemines, where the parish council approved and filed 21 lawsuits in 2013, an anti-lawsuit movement elected new members to the council, which voted to end the lawsuits last year. But because they were asserting claims on behalf of the state, the Plaquemines claims remain alive.
Former Gov. Bobby Jindal and pro-oil legislators passed legislation in 2014 to kill a similar coastal lawsuit brought by the New Orleans area east bank levee authority, and that case was dismissed in federal court last year. Jindal and his allies have also tried several times to limit legacy lawsuits in general.
Landry has made his political bones supporting the oil and gas industry, particularly his vociferous defense of it as a south-central Louisiana congressman after the BP oil spill. One of Landry’s top advisers is Shane Guidry, owner of leading offshore service firm Harvey Gulf International.
Landry's office also pointed to U.S. Rep. Garret Graves as someone who shared the attorney general's perspective. Graves said he believed that the parish lawsuits are not the best way to help the coast right now.
"You can be wildly successful with these parish lawsuits and get $50 billion in funds, but until you begin sustainably managing the coastal resources and make fundamental changes in the way the Corps of Engineers manages the river system, that money will be wasted," Graves said. "It’s critical that the first step be going after the Corps of Engineers and forcing them to sustainably manage the river, just like they would in California or Florida or anywhere else."
For his part, the new governor made his support for the coastal lawsuits clear during the fall campaign, and there’s a chance that Edwards might have his Department of Natural Resources intervene in the lawsuits too.
Parish councils, local district attorneys, the attorney general and the executive branch all have the authority to file claims for coastal permit violations.