Why We’re Suing the Oil Companies

A former member of the flood protection authority in New Orleans explains why legal action is being taken against the petroleum industry operating in the Gulf of Mexico.

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A leaking oil facility in the Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area. Production facilities like this, along with the barge traffic that they create, have helped degrade the wetlands of southern Louisiana. These protective wetlands are disappearing at a rate of about a football field–size area every 50 minutes.

Courtesy Gulf Restoration Network

Architecture fits human society into a place. In most instances, that “place” is at least relatively stable, although both it and the society that makes a home there may have to adjust to each other. In and around New Orleans, however, humans chose to develop a society and make homes in one of the most impermanent and environmentally dynamic places in the world. That society has not only failed to adjust to its environment, but has exacer-bated the place’s natural dynamism. 

In essence, New Orleans is not much more than a mud castle surrounded by a roil of water, but only in the wake of Hurricane Katrina did people living there begin to recognize that reality. And only this past July did any public entity take a concrete step to address the problems that humans themselves created. That’s when the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPAE)—the levee board responsible for protecting metropolitan New Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi River—filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, Marathon, and 92 other oil, gas, and pipeline companies. What’s at stake in this lawsuit is the future of much of coastal Louisiana, including its port traffic (18 percent of all commercial shipping in the United States passes through Louisiana) and energy infrastructure (roughly 20 percent of the nation’s oil refining capacity).

Until mid-October, I was vice president of the SLFPAE and one of the architects of the lawsuit, an action that is the culmination of geologic history, engineering, and law—and which has opened up great seismic faults that are shifting politics in Louisiana. 

No serious person, including those in the  fossil fuel industry, disputes that oil and gas operations have caused substantial land loss.

First, the geology: The Gulf of Mexico once reached north to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. As the sea level fell, the Mississippi River system built land from there to the present mouth of the river by depositing sediment into what had been water. In total, the river built approximately 40,000 square miles of land in seven states, including all of coastal Louisiana. There are no rocky cliffs on Louisiana’s coast; the entire shoreline is basically sediment held together by plant life. In Louisiana, the most densely populated areas are inland from the Gulf itself inland from the mix of water and earth that is called marsh. In the New Orleans metropolitan area, people live within a levee system as well. 

Second, the engineering: Multiple human triumphs—at least they seemed so when accomplished—have been destroying this coast for decades. Approximately 1,900 square miles of land have melted back into the ocean, and land loss is continuing at the rate of about one football field–size portion every 50 minutes. Causes of the land loss include the construc-tion of the levee system, which prevents river sediment from replenishing the land it made by flooding; the decline of sediment in the river—the river now carries less than half its historic sediment load and just six dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the upper Missouri River retain about half of all that missing sediment; various engineering works built to benefit the shipping industry, including the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which runs from Texas to Florida; and jetties that extend two and a half miles out into the Gulf and escort half the sediment remaining in the river into deep water where it is of no use replenishing the land.

There is also one other major factor in land loss: the operations of the oil and gas industry. The industry has dredged about 10,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal Louisiana, every inch of which has allowed salt water intrusion, changed salinity, interfered with natural hydrology, and killed plant life—thus leading to the erosion of land.

No serious person, including those in the  fossil fuel industry, disputes that oil and gas operations have caused substantial land loss. A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study in which industry scientists participated concluded that energy industry activities accounted for 36 percent of all the state’s land loss. Evidence is growing that oil and gas companies have extracted so large a volume of material that the land has actually sunk; the impact of Big Oil’s role in subsidence may not be entirely reflected in the USGS study.

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