Houma, Louisiana: after the town of Venice was almost completely destroyed by Katrina, Houma became the service and transportation center for the offshore oil industry in this part of the Gulf. Photo: Paul Goyette via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Oil lawyer turned judge rules: industry not liable for $50bn Gulf Coast damage
Farron Cousins / DeSmogBlog
19th February 2015
The oil and gas industry has admitted that its canals and drilling rigs have destroyed 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands on the US Gulf Coast, but a Federal Judge with deep industry ties has ruled that 97 companies off have no liability for the $50 billion damage.
Unfortunately, the dirty energy industry has powerful connections all over the South - from politicians to judges - and those connections have resulted in the dismissal of the lawsuit.
While much of the attention paid to the Gulf Coast in recent years has focused on BP's destruction of the Gulf of Mexico and the coastline, it is important to remember that the fossil fuel industry has been polluting the South for decades.
In fact, the problem is so bad that the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) filed a lawsuit against 97 fossil fuel companies two years ago to force them to pay for the destruction that they have caused to the Louisiana coast.
The lawsuit seemed almost doomed from the start: Republican Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation in 2014 that forbade the lawsuit from moving forward, but this legislation was later ruled unconstitutional and thrown out.
As Climate Progress points out, the growing concern among Louisiana citizens is that their coastline is disappearing: More than 1,900 square miles of coast line has vanished in the last 85 years, and the fossil fuel industry has been responsible for polluting what's left.
Oil wells are to blame, industry admits - but still wins
The industry has even admitted it is responsible for at least 36% of the total wetland loss in the state of Louisiana. The State Department estimates that the wells drilled by the dirty energy industry are destroying as much as 59% of the coast.
An admission of liability, hard facts, and the protection of the public's well being should have been enough to make this case a slam-dunk for any seasoned attorney. Unfortunately, the dirty energy industry has powerful connections all over the South - from politicians to judges - and those connections have resulted in the dismissal of the lawsuit.
The industry successfully lobbied to have the case moved from a state judge to a federal judge. This action, known as venue-shopping, allows a defendant to search for a more friendly judge before the case is heard, and US District Judge Nanette Jolivette Brown is about as friendly with the industry as a judge ever could be.
In mid-February, she tossed the suit, ruling that SLFPA-E had failed to make a valid claim under the law. Her 49-page judgment went into the fine detail of the permits under which the companies worked, and arcane points of law and legal precedents concerning drainage and landowners' rights and obligations.
An loyal friend and servant of the oil industry
Before her appointment to a federal judgeship by President Obama (confirmed unanimously by the US Senate), Judge Brown spent decades as a corporate attorney, working for firms that regularly represented the dirty energy industry in matters of environmental litigation.
During her time in practice, she worked at the law firms of Adams & Reese, the Onebane Law Firm, Milling, Benson, & Woodward, and the Chaffe McCall law firm. The McCall firm's website says the following about its oil and gas representation:
"Seventy-five years before the first commercial production of Oil and Gas in Louisiana, Chaffe McCall made its mark in the Louisiana legal field. Since early in the twentieth century, the firm has been sought out by clients in all aspects of the Oil and Gas industry. Our attorneys are thoroughly conversant with state and federal regulations of natural resources and the environment."
Meanwhile, Adams & Reese boast the following about its oil and gas litigation department:
"Whether advising an oil and gas operator, marine transportation company, offshore supply company, drilling contractor or a barge line, the Adams and Reese Oil and Gas Practice Team is strategically located along the Gulf South to provide legal services for exploration and production, as well as marine transportation, in the Gulf of Mexico and adjoining inland waterways."
And it wasn't that she just happened to be at a firm that represented the industry. After all, not every attorney at a law firm handles every case and represents all clients.
But Judge Brown's credentials specifically say that she "specialized" in environmental litigation, meaning that she sat in a courtroom and defended the very people that she just handed a massive legal victory. If she had even a shred of dignity, she would have recused herself from the case due to the massive conflict of interest.
The industry is getting out of a potential $50 billion penalty because it successfully pulled the case out of the state courts, and into the hands of an old friend.
Farron Cousins is the executive editor of 'The Trial Lawyer' magazine, and his writings have appeared in numerous publications including DeSmogBlog, California's Information Press and Pensacola's Independent Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @farronbalanced.
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