Legal group: Tax-and-spend policies, lawsuit abuse have hurt Louisiana coastal wetlands, economy

The non-partisan, grassroots legal watchdog group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW) argues that the “tax-sue-and-spend policies” of the Edwards administration and state Legislature “are further weakening our already struggling state economy.”

In 2015, LLAW notes that then-candidate John Bel Edwards told voters, “I believe the best way to raise revenue is not by raising tax rates, it’s by growing the economy.” Yet by early 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that Edwards and Louisiana lawyers had done the opposite by “plotting against the energy industry to fork over billions to restore the eroding coastline or brave a drawn-out legal battle.”

At issue is a shrinking coastline, a struggling oil and gas industry, increased taxes and fewer jobs, a bludgeoning lawsuit environment, and two opposing political approaches, according to LLAW.

According to recent data, Louisiana’s coastline loses land the size of one football field every 48 minutes due to erosion. At this rate, many of Louisiana’s 20 coastal parishes could be underwater by 2100 without levees to provide enough protection from storm surges that would have otherwise been provided by wetlands.

Since 2016, “legacy” or “coastal” lawsuits were filed by plaintiffs against oil and gas companies alleging they are to blame for erosion. Headed by Taylor Townsend, the Natchitoches-based trial lawyer and former state legislator who chairs Edwards’ political action committee, a team of attorneys have filed lawsuits against every major provider of oil and gas jobs in Louisiana.

Daniel Erspamer, CEO of the free market Pelican Institute, told Watchdog.org, “It’s just a big racket for trial attorneys. Add lawsuit abuse to the litany of reasons jobs and opportunity are fleeing Louisiana for friendlier states like Texas and Tennessee.

“Whether it’s legacy lawsuits or the legal environment that drove away the Bassmasters fishing tournament, our environment of lawsuit abuse is wreaking havoc on Louisiana working families and job seekers. When you add in a complicated and antiquated tax system and a broken system of state budgeting, you get the result we see today: the worst economy in the country, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and two straight years of economic decline. Louisiana deserves better.”

Melissa Landry, executive director of LLAW, agrees, noting that class actions were intended to benefit and protect consumers. But if you “follow the money,” they often don’t. LLAW compiled a list of high profile class action lawsuits that show how lawyers benefited from millions of dollars in compensation while victims received pennies on the dollar.

In fiscal 2016-2017, “Gov. Edwards raised our taxes by over $1 billion” and since then has “aggressively worked to expand the state’s role in lawsuits targeting Louisiana’s energy industry,” Landry said, adding that more than 20,000 Louisianans lost their jobs over the past two years.

The first of the coastal legacy lawsuits, filed by the Louisiana Flood Protection Board, alleged that energy companies dug canals in South Louisianan marshes that caused the state’s coastline to erode. In 2015, a federal district judge ruled that federal and state law provided no avenue for the board to bring a lawsuit, and the Federal Appeals Court in New Orleans agreed. The board requested that the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case, which it denied.

As a result of losing in the federal courts, Edwards’ legal team recruited coastal parishes and municipalities to file 43 lawsuits in state courts, offering to provide legal services to the plaintiffs, according to fee agreements.

In a May 19 letter written to the presidents of Louisiana’s two largest oil and gas trade associations (which represent over 100 local companies), Edwards wrote, “We are struggling to pay for our state’s Master Plan to restore the coast. I intend to be involved in all facets of the state’s coastal restoration efforts – including those efforts to secure funding for the Master Plan. … At this point, we have two choices – work together toward an amicable solution or spend years in litigation. There should be no doubt that it is in the best interests of Louisiana and the industry to choose the former option.”

However, the energy industry argues that any oil or gas exploration it undertook was done only after receiving a coastal permit from the state. Since 1980, the state has issued about 60,000 coastal permits. The permits recognize the “adverse impacts of dredging on water quality,” the “erosion of wetlands from laying pipeline across marsh area,” and “that the environmental risk … does not counterbalance the social and economic factors involved in this application.”

By authorizing these permits, the industry maintains, the state already determined that the economic benefits of drilling outweighed the environmental risks.

According to a Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies 2016 report, the oil and gas industry contributed about five percent of the state’s workforce, 10 percent of its aggregate payroll and between 10 and 15 percent of its tax revenue.

But these efforts are misguided, Attorney General Jeff Landry has argued, noting that the most significant factor contributing to coastal erosion was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ faulty decision 100 years ago to levee the Mississippi River. By doing so it deprived the wetlands of the sediment that would have otherwise been deposited every spring.

As a result, AG Landry filed a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers with the support of Republican Congressman Garret Graves, the former chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority who now sits on the committee overseeing the Corps of Engineers.

AG Landry argues that by constructing the Intracoastal Waterway, the Corps sought and received a servitude to build and maintain the waterway, limiting it to 300 feet of land use. But today, the channel is nearly 900 feet wide in certain parts, three times the width of the original servitude granted.

“The failure of the Corps to maintain and preserve the servitude has caused thousands of acres of land along our coast to be lost,” Landry said. “The Corps is in direct violation of their servitude agreement. Our lawsuit demands that the Corps of Engineers be enjoined from any further violations of its servitude and restore the damage caused by those violations.”

Rep. Graves remarked: “Our own federal government should be protecting our rights not treading on them. The bottom line is that if this were happening in California, New York, Florida or Illinois, it would have been stopped and restored decades ago. We cannot stand idle and allow Louisiana to be treated any differently.”

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