Big Oil loses effort to consolidate Louisiana coastal restoration litigation

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his afternoon, following an eight-minute long hearing on July 26th in Sante Fe, New Mexico, five federal judges on the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) denied a motion filed on behalf of thirteen oil and gas corporations, which had sought to consolidate dozens of different lawsuits related to coastal land loss and damages in Louisiana.

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Download the full decision here.

(The Bayou Brief first reported on the pending motion on July 1st in “Wildcatting: Inside the Legal Strategy of Big Oil in Louisiana.”)

The MDL panel’s decision represents a significant victory for the State of Louisiana and specifically for Keith Stutes, the district attorney for Lafayette, Acadia, and Vermillion parishes, and a victory for Plaquemines, Jefferson, Cameron, and St. Bernard parishes. The cases all variously allege, among other things, that these corporations, by illegally violating or not complying with their permits, are at least partially responsible and liable for potentially billions of dollars in environmental damages to the state’s vulnerable coast.

The litigation involves some of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet- BP, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, who have relied on a series of procedural (and sometimes contradictory) motions to delay trials, in some cases for nearly five years. The industry has previously admitted it is liable for approximately 36% of “wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana.”

Although the 42 separate cases remain in federal court, split between the Western and Eastern Districts of Louisiana, the plaintiffs are expected to request they all be remanded back to state court, as they all primarily involve questions of state law.

The decision to request centralization (or consolidation) of the cases was largely seen as a dilatory effort, according to independent legal experts. The industry’s lawyers had previously argued that the cases should be considered individually, a position with which the plaintiffs had agreed.

Two different attorneys involved in the litigation used the same word to The Bayou Brief to describe the industry’s appeal to the MDL panel: “charade.” The five judges on the panel apparently agreed.

“The (panel) had no trouble recognizing the most recent efforts of large oil corporations to postpone a trial through procedural maneuvering,” attorney Richard Broussard told The Bayou Brief. “Their effort to further stall a judgment requiring them to clean up their mess was soundly rejected.”

The denial was authored by Judge Midge Rendell, the former First Lady of Pennsylvania and the wife of Gov. Ed Rendell, and was joined by- among others- Judge Charles Breyer, the younger brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and Judge R. David Proctor, a conservative appointee of George W. Bush in Alabama.

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]uring the past five years, lobbyists, political action committees, and nonprofit organizations affiliated with Big Oil have engaged in a multimillion dollar, coordinated public relations campaign, which has been largely focused on smearing the lawyers representing the plaintiffs and spreading disinformation and industry-funded reports alleging that the economic impacts of the litigation would be catastrophic.

There is no evidence at all that the litigation has negatively impacted the industry or the state’s economy. As The Bayou Brief previously reported in “Rigged: The Lies and Contradictions of Big Oil’s Campaign Against Protecting and Restoring Louisiana’s Coast,” Don Briggs, the former executive director of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA), admitted in a sworn deposition that he could not identify a single job lost as a consequence of the litigation. (Briggs’s son Gifford now serves as LOGA’s director). Indeed, the central argument that the litigation could result in job losses seems to be based entirely off of an off-the-cuff guess made by an Exxon executive.

Moreover, the law clearly states that 100% of any potential award for damages would be provided to the state, under a supervised use agreement, and would be exclusively dedicated to fund coastal restoration projects. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, if successful in a separate round of litigation, would only be compensated based on their merit and the expenses they have incurred. Attorneys for the defendants, however, have already raked in millions in fees.

“What (these companies) did was unlawful,” Broussard said. “Ultimately, Big Oil and not the taxpayers of our state must fund the restoration of their damage.”

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar White, Jr. is an award-winning writer and the publisher and founder of the Bayou Brief, Louisiana’s only statewide news and culture publication. Born and raised on the banks of the Red River in Alexandria, he is a proud product of the Louisiana public education system and a graduate of Rice University in Houston and SMU’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas. Lamar has been writing about politics and public policy in Louisiana for twenty years, beginning as a weekly youth columnist for his hometown paper, the Town Talk. After earning his undergraduate degree in English and Religious Studies, Lamar moved back to Alexandria, where he launched a popular blogsite, CenLamar, and worked for five years as the Special Assistant to the Mayor. He exposed significant problems with Louisiana’s school voucher program, which resulted in a series of other investigations and ultimately in the removal of several schools from the program. He was the last person to argue online with Andrew Breitbart. He investigated and then broke the report that U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise had once attended a white supremacist conference. He was the first to share a photograph of Bobby Jindal’s portrait in the state Capitol. He exposed U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy’s incomplete timesheets while the then-representative moonlighted as a physician. He earned headlines in Texas after the gubernatorial campaign of Greg Abbott falsely claimed he had been exploited as a “campaign prop” by Abbott’s opponent, Wendy Davis, and after exposing U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign for relying on online “bot farms” to counter Beto O’Rourke, and he earned headlines in Mississippi after publishing videos of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith making bizarre comments about public hangings and voter suppression tactics which were both perceived as racist. Lamar was the recipient of the 2011 Ashley Morris Award, given to the writer who best exemplifies the spirit of New Orleans, and in 2019, he was honored as one of Gambit’s Top 40 Under 40 and as the year’s Outstanding Millennial in Journalism at the annual Millennial Awards. He has been the subject of profiles in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Above the Law, and the Advocate and has appeared multiple times as a guest on CNN and MSNBC. Lamar currently lives in New Orleans with his two golden retrievers, Lucy Ana and Ruby Dog.