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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Tosses Suit Over Alleged Coastal Damage

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A federal judge on Friday threw out a lawsuit against more than 80 oil, gas and pipeline companies accused of damaging millions of acres of wetlands in southeastern Louisiana.

The lawsuit was filed in 2013 by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. It claimed the defendant companies, including Shell, Exxon and BP, through drilling and dredging activities, created billions of dollars in harm and heightened the risk to the greater New Orleans area from hurricanes coming ashore from the Gulf of Mexico.

"What remains of Louisiana is slipping into the Gulf of Mexico through a combination of direct removal, erosion and submergence, sinking at the fastest rate of any coastal landscape on the planet," the lawsuit stated.

To locate and drill for oil along Louisiana's sensitive coast, oil and gas companies create canals winding through millions of acres of swampland and maintain the canals with periodic dredging. Overtime, the canals necessarily widen, and the result is a buildup of sediment in unintended areas and a greater instance of saltwater intrusion into fragile freshwater ecosystems. The effect is massive erosion.

Supporters of the flood authority lawsuit said it was imperative to hold oil and gas companies accountable for the millions of acres of lost land, and that doing so would help fund necessary coastal restoration.

But in a 49-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown sided with the oil and gas company, holding they are under no contractual obligation to preserve the wetlands.

Judge Brown said that for its lawsuit to survive, the flood authority needed to demonstrate that the oil and gas industry is legally obligated to protect the levee authority from the effects of coastal erosion. She concluded it had not.

The flood authority named a few specific acts under which it alleged protection from harm from oil industry practices, including the Clean Water Act, but Judge Brown disagreed that the acts are in place to protect the wetlands or to prevent catastrophic storm damages.

"Plaintiff has not demonstrated that Congress intended the Clean Water Act to create a legal duty in favor of plaintiff or its predecessor levee districts," She wrote.

Brown continued: "Plaintiff points to no legal authority supporting its argument that the permits issued pursuant to the Clean Water Act impose a standard of care upon Defendants for the benefit of the levee board."

The levee authority had argued that permits obtained by the oil and gas industry to dredge canals through the wetlands are contracts in effect and that the contracts would necessarily come with a restoration clause. Judge Brown disagreed. Dredging permits cannot be construed as contracts, she said.

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