A lawsuit pursuing financial restitution for damages by a petrochemical company to Louisiana’s natural storm buffer moved forward Thursday, when the state’s attorney general signed onto a $100 million settlement agreement.
For years, parishes have been pursuing lawsuits against oil and gas companies for ripping up the state’s wetlands, furthering the state’s coastal land loss and its vulnerability to future storms. A deal signed by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry involving the petrochemical company, Freeport-McMoRan, could provide a blueprint for further coastal lawsuit settlements.
Money from the deal will be used to pursue projects to restore the coast. The Freeport-McMoRan settlement requires the approval of the 12 coastal parishes who are party to the lawsuit, the state Department of Natural Resources and the attorney general, said Baton Rouge attorney John Carmouche, who represents the parishes. But the approval of Landry, a supporter of the petrochemical industry, was not guaranteed.
Landry held a news conference Thursday to explain his reasoning for signing on to the deal. He said that as a lawyer it is his obligation to avoid litigation in court when possible. The settlement does just that, he said. “I believe that we can get to a place where everyone works together to focus on what really matters, which is preserving our coast for our children and grandchildren.”
But oil and gas lobbyists still aren’t on board with the idea. The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association issued a joint statement Thursday calling the lawsuits an “a flawed settlement scheme that could put our coast further at risk.”
For years, petrochemical lobbyists have tried to use state legislation to stop the lawsuits from moving forward. The most recent attempt came in the form of a bill introduced by Senator Michael Fesi, R-Houma, during 2020’s regular legislative session.
At a May committee hearing on the bill, St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis expressed frustration with having to go to the state capitol to defend the parish’s pursuit of lawsuits. “In one of the largest disasters, this global pandemic, in the history of the world, and I got to be here fighting for our right in St. Bernard Parish to sue a company that polluted our parish,” McInnis said then.
For the Freeport-McMoRan settlement to take effect the Louisiana Legislature will need to pass a bill to direct where the money goes and rules for how it will be spent. Carmouche said he is hopeful that a bill to do so will become law without the political interference that has occured in the past. “We’re hoping and praying they’ll allow the parishes to continue to do what they’re doing because it’s working,” he said.
While the settlement has not been made public, Carmouche said that the deal includes language that would allow Freeport-McMoRan to be reimbursed for the majority of the $100 million settlement in the form of environmental credits, which could be sold to other companies looking to reduce the impact of their greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the money could take years to disburse, delaying coastal restoration as the state’s coast continues to go underwater. “We’re losing miles and miles of coast every year,” Carmouche said. “That’s why it’s sad that the oil companies are able to delay going to trial this long.”