DALLAS — A New Orleans levee district suing 97 oil companies for billions of dollars in coastal damage offered to suspend the suit if Gov. Bobby Jindal can find an alternative compensation plan.
Jindal opposes the suit by South Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, which contends that destruction of wetlands by the companies makes the New Orleans area more vulnerable to hurricanes.
Trustees of the flood protection authority offered Thursday to suspend the suit for 45 days so state officials and authority executives can negotiate a compromise.
The authority said it filed the suit because it cannot afford the complex, expensive system of levees and floodgates needed to protect New Orleans.
Flood potential from hurricane storm surges have been made more severe by the loss of the wetlands buffer, it contends.
The lawsuit, filed in a New Orleans state civil court July 24, asks that the oil companies spend billions of dollars to restore the damaged ecosystem as required by their coastal permits or help the authority fund and maintain the levee system.
Jindal said the state was responsible for coastal restoration and protection efforts, not the levee district.
"This is nothing but a windfall for a handful of lawyers," he said shortly after the suit was filed.
"We're not going to allow a single levee board that has been hijacked by a group of trial lawyers to determine flood protection, coastal restoration, and economic repercussions for the entire state of Louisiana," Jindal said.
The regional flood protection district was created as a reform board by a constitutional amendment in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. It oversees efforts on the east bank of the Mississippi River by East Jefferson Levee District, Orleans Levee District, and Lake Borgne Basin Levee District.
John Barry, vice president of the flood protection authority, said he hopes a substantial financial compensation from the oil and gas companies will be included in a Jindal administration proposal.
"Anything I would regard as a solution would have to involve significant contributions on behalf of the industry," Barry said.
"The industry has taken about $470 billion of the state's natural resources during the past 20 years," he said. "We ask that it pick up its share of the increased costs of flood protections required to offset the loss of protective coastal wetlands."
Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said he would welcome a sincere, constructive effort to resolve the dispute between the state and the flood protection district.
"If the board resolution is an attempt to dictate to the state how this will proceed, then no," Graves said. "The tail's not going to wag the dog."
The board offered to suspend the lawsuit during the negotiating period after it met with Graves in a four-hour executive session.
Commissioner Richard Leuttich Jr. said restoring the coastal buffer is the district's goal, not simply a victory in a court case.
"The suit, as a suit, means nothing to me," Leuttich said. "The suit is a means to accomplish the objective, which is protection of the coast."
Graves and Barry offered conflicting views Wednesday in Baton Rouge before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works.
The loss of coastal areas cannot be blamed solely on the energy industry, Graves said.
"There is a coastal crisis," Graves said. "It is attributable largely to how the Army Corps of Engineers put those levees in place."
The district board had no option but to seek damages from the oil companies, Barry said in his testimony.
"We filed suit because we don't want other people to die in a hurricane or have their homes and livelihoods destroyed," Barry said.
"We want energy companies to fix the part of the problem they caused, and which they promised to address," he said. "We want them to do what they said they'd do."
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include BP, Chevron USA, Exxon Mobil Corp, Shell Oil Co., and 93 other companies that drill, produce, and transport oil and natural gas along the coast.
Chevron filed a motion Aug. 13 asking that the lawsuit be heard in federal court. No hearing has been set for the request.
The case is Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, et al, v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, LCC, et al, Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans No. 13-6911.