New Orleans Sues Big Oil

Jun 14, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 1:22 pm
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Living in New Orleans means living with the constant threat of flooding. After Hurricane Katrina, the federal government built a giant $14 billion flood-protection system. Now the city is trying to restore the marshes that protect it from storm surge. To pay for that, it is suing an industry that's been key to the state's economy. Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO and NPR's energy and environment team reports.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: New Orleans isn't exactly on the coast, but it recently hired Anne Coglianese to manage coastal resilience.

ANNE COGLIANESE: I always have sneakers in my car, so I'm ready to be in the mud at any given moment.

WENDLAND: It's a hot, sunny day. And Lake Pontchartrain laps at the shore to our left, the Gulf of Mexico to our right. This is the New Orleans Land Bridge, a shrinking strip of land just outside the city. Homes rise high on stilts, and the marshy wetlands stretch out for miles.

COGLIANESE: This is pretty much our last line of defense to keeping surge from the Gulf from coming into the lake and really putting pressure on our levees.

WENDLAND: These marshes act as natural buffers from storm surge. The problem is the land is disappearing. Like much of southern Louisiana, it's naturally sinking, and then there's sea level rise. But the biggest reason is the thousands of miles of channels that oil companies carve through these fragile marshes to get out to their rigs. Those channels have eroded and turned to open water. New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell.

LATOYA CANTRELL: We have to protect our people and property. And we have been damaged by offshore drilling. It is a fact. And we need protections in the future. And in order to get those protections, you need money.

WENDLAND: Cantrell says there is some money for restoration, mostly through the state. And she's looking for more to pay for things like rebuilding the land bridge and urban projects, like rain gardens. So she's suing a handful of oil and gas companies over those channels they carved through the marshes, including Chevron and ExxonMobil. It's a risky move in a city so tied to the industry.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Don't miss French Quarter Festival, presented by Chevron...

WENDLAND: There's also Jazz Fest funded by Shell, summer camps funded by Chevron.

ANDY HOROWITZ: New Orleanians and Louisianans in general have often viewed the oil industry as kind of a benevolent corporate patron.

WENDLAND: Tulane environmental history professor Andy Horowitz says the legal action represents a big shift.

HOROWITZ: The lawsuit is, in part, a recognition that the oil industry has not been an unalloyed good for New Orleans or for Louisiana, that it's caused a lot of damage here, too. Having the mayor claim it in a lawsuit and claim specific damages is a new step and a significant one.

WENDLAND: Six other parishes have filed similar suits. Gifford Briggs is the president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, which represents many of the companies listed in the suits. He points out the city has been an energy hub for the Gulf of Mexico.

GIFFORD BRIGGS: And to think that that city has now turned on the industry that, to a large degree, sort of was the foundation and built that city up into a global energy community is very frustrating. And it's unfortunate.

WENDLAND: He says fewer companies want to drill in Louisiana because of the suits. Meantime, Mayor Cantrell says the coast continues to wash away.

CANTRELL: New Orleans is a coastal city. It's a fact. And because of that, yes, we are growing more vulnerable, and it is requiring us to do things differently.

WENDLAND: It could take years for the lawsuits to wind their way through the courts. And law experts say if the city wins, the money may be negligible, certainly not enough to rebuild all the land that's disappeared. Still, it may force the oil and gas industry to step in and try to solve a problem it helped create.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.

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