U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

April 25, 2019; Next City

Here at NPQ, we have covered the growing impact of climate change, including proposals for a Green New Deal, the sometimes-fickle response of philanthropy, and how climate change affects civil society and all nonprofits. Here comes a story from New Orleans that speaks to some of these trends.

At the end of last month, New Orleans filed a suit against 11 oil and gas companies. The companies named in the suit are: Apache Louisiana Minerals, Aspect Energy, Chaparral Energy, Chevron USA Inc., Collins Pipeline Co., Entergy New Orleans (and its predecessor companies), EOG Resources Inc., ExxonMobil Pipeline Co., Gulf South Pipeline Co. Southern Natural Gas Co., and Whiting Oil and Gas Corp. Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune noted that New Orleans’ suit is “similar to dozens of other suits filed against oil and gas firms by six Louisiana parishes.” The central charge: destruction of the surrounding wetlands.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, in explaining the lawsuit, said, “New Orleans has been harmed. The people of our city have been harmed, and our way of life is threatened by the damage done to our coastal wetland. Given the challenges we face when it comes to our infrastructure, the additional strain of these damages demands action. Getting our fair share means being made whole by the companies who have harmed us.”

Like the other suits, notes Schleifstein, “the city filing argues that in exploration, development and operation of oil and gas wells and pipelines, the energy companies violated provisions of the state’s Coastal Zone Management Act of 1978, either by not restoring damage such as canals and spoil banks, or cleaning up hazardous and radioactive waste produced during drilling operations.”

The state is losing land at a rapid pace. Tulane geologist Torbjörn Törnqvist has said the state loses a football field of land to the Gulf every hour. The destruction of the wetlands is also blamed for significantly increasing the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005. As Tim Padgett wrote in Time Magazine back in 2010:

[Wetlands] once served as natural buffers for New Orleans against hurricanes, but over the decades their man-made degradation created instead a natural bowling lane, where catastrophic storms can roll into the Big Easy unchallenged. That was the case…when Hurricane Katrina and its 125 mph (205 km/h) winds wrecked the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida, caused almost $100 billion in damage and killed 1,800 people.

Writing in Next City, Zoe Sullivan cites the work of Scott Eustis, an environmental scientist with New Orleans-based Healthy Gulf, formerly the Gulf Restoration Network. Eustis points out that the loss of wetlands doesn’t harm every community equally. “There’s a racial justice issue there. There’s a housing justice issue there, and it’s compounded by this hurricane risk,” Eustis explains.

There has also been a reaction from the accused. Sullivan notes, “The Times-Picayune reported that oil and gas industry groups had threatened their members might withdraw funding from city events they have sponsored in the past, potentially affecting New Orleans’ famed jazz festival.”

To Eustis, the companies’ reaction is not a surprise. To date, Sullivan adds, “Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts have been funded mainly by settlements paid by oil and gas companies from previous lawsuits.”

John Barry, a former member of the New-Orleans-area levee board, contends that the investments in protecting Louisiana’s wetlands would actually ultimately benefit the oil and gas industry which he says was budgeting some $1.6 trillion dollars on infrastructure when the levee board was preparing its lawsuit. Barry adds. “They basically want taxpayers to pay to fix damage that they caused, but that they will benefit from because the amount of oil and gas infrastructure in Louisiana, obviously, is enormous, and all of that is jeopardized by storm surge and land loss.”

Barry may be right, and yet we ask ourselves how much longer is it possible for Louisiana—or anyone for that matter—to use that infrastructure before we must accept that much of this infrastructure will ultimately be stranded assets…assuming, that is, that we actually want to preserve coastal cities like New Orleans for the long term. Not so long ago, NPQ ran an article suggesting that ultimately public ownership of fossil fuel companies might be required if we are to achieve the carbon emissions reductions necessary to prevent (or at least mitigate) coastal flooding. And if the projections of folks like the United Nations are correct, which they seem to be, then we do not have a lot of time to lose.—Steve Dubb