MAGINNIS: Coming Clash of the Green Armies

For two guys who do not play the guitar or football and don’t shoot ducks on TV, John Barry and Russel Honoré are as close to major celebrities as we have in this state, with their fame both established in connection to historic floods. Now the author and the retired Army lieutenant general (also a published author), respectively, are using their statuses to rally public support to address the manmade impact on the state’s environment during next year’s legislative session.

Though Barry, thanks to Gov. Bobby Jindal, is no longer on the board of the Orleans-area flood protection authority that is suing 97 oil companies for coastal damages, he remains the most vocal advocate for the legal action. He has formed a new group, Restore Louisiana Now, whose first mission is to defend the lawsuit against administrative and legislative counter-attack.

For Honoré, whose command brought some order to the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, it took another manmade disaster, the massive sinkhole that figuratively swallowed up the Bayou Corne community, to inspire him to form his “Green Army” to wage battle for the cause he calls environmental justice.

Both plan to mobilize citizen activists to get behind a package of bills during the 2014 session. There they will engage with another “green” army in the persons of a well-paid, entrenched corps of company lobbyists who have held the Capitol for decades.

The major test for both sides could come on an expected bill to limit the power of the flood protection authority to pursue its suit against the oil firms.

Since it is easier to kill a bill than to pass one, the environmental groups could have an advantage on defense. Legislators are most influenced by lobbyists up to the point when the public starts paying attention to an issue, when attitudes and positions can change quickly.

The first volley came last week from Restore Louisiana Now with the release of its poll that showed over three-fourths of voters favor letting the suit go forward. An independent statewide poll released at the same time put support for the suit lower, but still at 50 percent for to 36 percent against.

The challenges will grow stiffer for the environmentalists as they move onto the offensive. Honoré is calling for an end to the two-year severance tax emption for horizontal drilling, which companies use along with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from underground formations. The tax break helped to fuel the Haynesville Shale rush, which made many north Louisiana landowners rich, and it is being counted on by companies moving into the Tuscaloosa Shale north of Baton Rouge.

Removing the exemption would take a two-third vote of the Legislature, which is just about impossible to achieve on matters when there is little opposition, and there would be a lot of it on this, right up to the governor’s office.

The same goes for a Honoré proposal to give citizens the power to put referenda directly on the ballot without having to clear the two-thirds legislative hurdle to propose a constitutional amendment. Former Gov. Mike Foster tried that at the peak of his influence with the Legislature in 1996 and it went nowhere. The Legislature is not keen on being bypassed.

Similar gloomy prospects await a change the general wants to have forcing legislators employed by oil and gas companies to recuse themselves from voting on industry-related bills. Such lawmakers would argue they are being discriminated against because colleagues who are lawyers don’t have to recuse themselves from voting on bills related to the legal profession.

Other issues that Barry and Honoré might promote, from the regulation of salt caverns to the industrial use of water aquifers, could have fighting chances, but only with informed, persistent lobbying by movement volunteers, backed with grassroots support on the home front. Even then, the green armies will have to be prepared not to be disappointed when they don’t take the hill on the first charge. As Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, in his fifth decade in the Legislature, once mused, “Good bills take three or four years to pass. Bad bills we pass right away.”

The difference that the author and the general could make is putting well-known names and faces behind causes for which untold thousands of potential followers have long waited for true leaders to champion.

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