After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans in 2005, a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers blamed the disaster, in part, on a state flood protection system that was corrupt, inept—a “system in name only.”
In response, the people of Louisiana began to push for reform of the state’s levee boards. Within four weeks, they had a petition with 53,000 signatures, which was more than the immediate post-storm population of New Orleans. For months, scores of Louisianans showed up at the state legislature, telling their representatives to fix the state’s flood protection system.
Finally, in March 2006, the state legislature created the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authorities (SLFPA–East and SLFPA–West), two boards whose members were world-class experts in flood control and coastal protection. The SLFPA Boards were charged with protecting some of Louisiana’s most important levee systems and the people who live within them. SLFPA–E’s jurisdiction included the City of New Orleans.
In 2013, the SLFPA–E Board determined that, in order to protect their jurisdiction from floods, they must address the actions of oil and gas companies which had for decades been damaging the coastal wetlands that protect South Louisiana from hurricanes and surge tides. The Board voted unanimously to file a lawsuit against these oil and gas companies, and retained Jones Swanson to do it.
In July, 2013, Jones Swanson—along with co-counsel Fishman, Haygood, Phelps, Walmsley, Willis & Swanson and Veron, Bice, Palermo & Wilson—filed SLFPA–E’s lawsuit against nearly 100 oil, gas and pipeline companies. These companies include ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Hess, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Tennessee Pipeline Company, Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, and Koch Industries.
The lawsuit claimed that, for decades, these oil and gas companies had broken their legal and contractual obligations to restore the land after they worked it. The suit cited studies showing that oil and gas canals had contributed to Louisiana’s coastal land loss, which in turn made the state’s population more vulnerable to hurricanes.
Several of those studies were done by the oil and gas industry itself. In 1989, for example, a Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association study found that the “effects of canal development tend to be the overwhelming cause of wetland losses.”
The day SLFPA–E’s lawsuit was filed, then-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal publicly vowed to kill it. Oil and gas industry lobbyists mobilized to attack the SLFPA–E suit in court as well as in the legislature, where they promoted a number of bills to make the lawsuit retroactively illegal. The bills created a political firestorm in Louisiana, where polls have repeatedly shown that the overwhelming majority of people consider land loss to be a crucially important issue, with most people supporting the SLFPA–E lawsuit.
The SLFPA–E case generated intense interest not only within the state, but all across the country. TV, radio, and newspaper outlets produced hundreds of articles on the case. Three former Louisiana governors came out in favor of it, and virtually every newspaper in the state published at least one editorial condemning the legislature’s attempts to kill the case. The New York Times Magazine called the SLFPA–E case “the most ambitious environmental lawsuit ever.”
On the day the SLFPA–E lawsuit was filed, then-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal publicly vowed to kill it.
Nearly all of these industry-supported bills failed, but on the final day of the 2014 legislative session, the last one of them, SB469, passed. According to its original sponsor, Senator Bret Allain, the purpose of SB469 was simply “to kill the lawsuit.” A federal district court then dismissed the case, bringing the SLFPA–E’s legal efforts to an end—but not before a number of private citizens filed their own land loss suits against oil and gas companies.
Jones Swanson represents several of those plaintiffs, including a group of South Louisiana landowners who recently brought a case highlighting the role that oil and gas pipeline companies have played in Louisiana’s land loss crisis. That case—Vintage Assets, Inc. v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., LLC and Southern Natural Gas Co. LLC—is currently awaiting a ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.