New Orleans said wetland loss caused by oil, gas and pipeline companies is endangering the city's infrastructure and residents. Photo credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

The city of New Orleans, which is already experiencing an increase in extreme rainfall events and rising seas due to climate change, is demanding that eleven oil, gas and pipeline companies pay for the damage they’ve done to its coastal wetlands.

The city alleges that the companies failed to protect the coastal environment and “specifically foresaw” the destructive effect of their operations.

In the suit, which was Friday in New Orleans District Court, the city said the companies failed to comply with coastal use permits, which are required in order to operate in Louisiana’s fragile wetlands. It is asking the companies to pay for the cost of decontaminating and restoring the wetlands.

Defendants in the suit include Apache Louisiana Minerals, Aspect Energy, Chaparral Energy, Chevron, Collins Pipeline Company, Entergy New Orleans, EOG Resources, ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, Gulf South Pipeline Company, Southern Natural Gas, and Whiting Oil and Gas Corporation.

The city said wetland loss caused by the companies is endangering New Orleans infrastructure and residents.

“The land that’s been lost was a protective barrier defending us from hurricanes and floods,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

Wetlands act as a barrier during hurricanes and tropical storms, reducing storm surge and protecting the city.

On the edge of New Orleans, the East Orleans Land Bridge area near Lake Borgne has lost an estimated 5,470 acres of marsh since 1932, according to  U.S. Geological Survey. More than 1000 additional acres have been lost in the nearby Alligator Bend area.

“Oil and gas exploration and production have included a multitude of access canals and other activities, the failure to maintain which directly harms the coastal wetland,” the city said in its petition. “Pipeline companies have gashed long, straight conduits, which again, they have failed to adequately maintain and protect such that they have become wetlands-destroying forces through the coastal zone.”

Oil, gas and pipeline companies, which have operated in Louisiana for the last century, cut long, straight canals through the wetlands to move drilling rigs, pipelines and other equipment through marshy coastal areas. Saltwater then enters the marsh, altering the delicate ecosystem and killing vegetation. Loosened soil, once held together by plant root systems, is then washed away.

Defendant companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association in a joint statement denounced the suit.

“With the filing of this lawsuit, the City of New Orleans sends a message to oil and gas they’re closed for business,” said Tyler Gray, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group.

New Orleans isn’t the only Louisiana municipality trying to hold oil and gas companies accountable for the damage they’ve done to the coast.

Six coastal parishes have filed similar suits against several oil and gas companies. Those suits are still pending.

In July 2013, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E), a levee board that oversees flood control, filed suit in state court against nearly 200 oil and gas companies demanding they pay to restore wetlands damaged by dredging, drilling and by running pipelines.

Then-governor Bobby Jindal, who was strongly opposed to the suit, replaced levee board members who supported the litigation and signed a bill retroactively forbidding the board from filing the suit.

Oil companies eventually succeeded in moving the suit to federal court, where it was dismissed by a judge who ruled in part that the oil companies had no responsibility to protect the plaintiff—a levee board—from coastal erosion.

According to the National Climate Assessment, rising sea levels and an increase in extreme rainfall events in the country’s southeast region are already causing an increase in flooding, particularly in coastal cities like New Orleans.

Cantrell said if the current rate of wetland loss continues, the Gulf of Mexico will be at the edge of New Orleans within fifty years and the city will be left with no protective land barriers.

“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.”

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