MAGINNIS: Local Lawsuits More to Jindal’s Liking

There is a good reason why Gov. Bobby Jindal responded so calmly to Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes suing dozens of oil companies for coastal damage, compared to his ballistic reaction to a similar suit filed earlier by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

Yes, the parishes’ suits are brought by elected local officials instead of an appointed board. And yes, the parishes don’t have eye-popping contingency-fee contracts with their attorneys as the flood authority does.

But the most compelling reason why the governor does not repudiate the parishes’ legal action against Big Oil is that it’s what he has been waiting for.

The governor has been heavily criticized by environmental and civic groups for his offensive against the SLFPA-E board, including effectively removing its vice chairman, author John Barry, the eloquent and credible public voice for the legal cause. Jindal was seen to be protecting the interests of the oil companies, when, actually, the interests he was protecting were his own. The unilateral action by the appointed state board, out of line with state policy toward the coast and the industry, was an intolerable affront to the power of the governor. Not to mention that, if the suit succeeded, Barry, not Jindal, would get the credit.

While the governor may seek to quash the flood authority’s lawsuit, his action should not be mistaken for is siding with the oil companies.

There are aha! moments and there are uh-oh moments. The latter came for oil firm attorneys and executives during the 2012 legislative session when they grew alarmed that Jindal did not back their legislation to rein in the plague of so-called oilfield legacy lawsuits. The governor seemed to be siding with big landowners and, by extension, their environmental attorneys, whom oil execs loath as the most rapacious of trial lawyers. The leader of the lawyers, whose firm has filed the most oilfield damages suits, is Don Carmouche of Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello, which happens to be the lead attorneys on the lawsuits by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.

The parishes’ suits have been likened to the dozens of legacy lawsuits that Carmouche’s firm has brought on behalf of landowners in southwest and central Louisiana. (They are called “legacy” because the claims for damages often go back for decades to ensnare the major oil companies as defendants.)

But the new suits differ in two important ways. Because they are filed in the Coastal Zone, the potential damages, considering coastal erosion, are much greater. Also, instead of the parishes suing as landowners, they are bringing action as the government regulators of development in the Coastal Zone. Sharing that regulatory authority is the state Department of Natural Resources.

The governor could have the state intervene and supplant the parishes as plaintiff. But there is no need to do so. The administration can monitor the lawsuits as it nudges the parties toward a negotiated settlement. At that point, the two coastal parishes won’t be alone, for it is likely that negotiations would lead to a global settlement to include the flood protection authority and the potential claims of other parishes, levee boards and the state itself. There is only one person who can sit at the head of that bargaining table. And it’s not John Barry.

The governor does not necessarily want to be seen as the one who starts this fight, but he is bound to be there when it is resolved.

Such a settlement could go a long way toward funding the state’s master plan for the coast, projected to cost $50 billion over 50 years. Not only would that secure Jindal’s reputation as a coastal protector, but it would also, nationally, establish his independence from and his power over the mighty oil industry.

The late great Russell Long once said that he could never be president because he was an oil state senator. There are other reasons why Bobby Jindal won’t be president, but he can see to it that a cozy relationship with Big Oil won’t be one of them.

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