“The gates of history turn on tiny hinges,” Mrs. Monahon, my high school history teacher liked to say. A precedent-setting agreement this week between Freeport-McMoRan, a company that specializes in drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and 12 coastal communities in Louisiana may be one of those tiny hinges. According to the New York Times, the company has agreed to pay up to $100 million to restore the Louisiana coastline.
It is one of 98 defendants in 46 lawsuits brought over coastal damage says John Carmouche, a lawyer representing eight of the 12 parishes that are part of the tentative agreement. The proposed settlement may pertain to just one of those defendants, but it could be a harbinger of things to come for large oil companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell. “This is definitely a starting point and I think they all understand that the ones that come first get the better deals,” Carmouche says.
Melissa Landry, a spokesperson for five of the defendants — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell — gave a typically combative response to the news. “It’s a long way away from presenting a legitimate solution,” she said while declining to say whether the companies had discussed possible settlements with the parishes. She insists oil and gas companies had been operating within the scope of the law for decades and that the “complex and multifaceted problem” of protecting and restoring Louisiana’s coast “will not be resolved in a courtroom.”
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards tells the Times he hopes other corporations will strike similar deals with the local governments. State officials estimate it will cost $50 billion to neutralize land loss. The money from the proposed settlement would go toward a Coastal Zone Recovery Fund managed by the state, that will distribute the funds to pay for coastal restoration projects in the affected parishes.
“Ensuring these funds stay in the communities that are impacted for dedicated coastal restoration is why the state of Louisiana intervened in these lawsuits, despite the fact that they were filed before I was governor,” Mr. Edwards said in a statement, adding that he hoped the deal would be a model for future agreements.
Multiple Lines Of Defense
According to Mississippi River Delta.org, Louisiana loses a football field sized chunk of its coastline to the sea every 100 minutes. Since 1930, more than 2,000 square miles of the state has been claimed by the Gulf of Mexico. It promotes what is called the Multiple Lines Of Defense strategy developed by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation after Hurricane Katrina.
“Robust, large-scale restoration projects, along with coastal protection and community resiliency measures, are our best solutions for reducing land loss, protecting our communities and cities, and ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come,” says MDR.
The proposals include:
- Reconnecting the river to its delta through land-building sediment diversions
- Strategic use of dredged sediments to build and sustain wetlands and barrier islands
- Improved management of the Mississippi River
- Adopting community resilience measures, such as home elevation.
“The strategy coordinates coastal restoration, traditional flood protection as well as community resiliency measures such as evacuation, home elevation and more. Together, these solutions provide multiple levels of storm surge protection for cities, communities and businesses,” MDR says.
Let The Games Begin!
If you think this proposed settlement agreement sounds like how prosecutors get small time criminals to roll over on their bosses, you’re right. The oil majors have virtually unlimited funds to pay lawyers to defend them but the smaller companies do not. The courts may not be the ideal forum in which to resolve weighty questions like who should pay for damaging the environment, but in the absence of strong, effective leadership at the federal level the courts are often the only place injured parties can get compensated of for their losses.
This litigation is not going to be concluded any time soon, but this proposed settlement sends a warning to the big corporations that their day of reckoning is coming. Behind all their bluster and blather, their leaders are quaking in the boots as they calculate how much they will have to pay — eventually — for their cavalier disregard of the environment that sustains us all.