(The Center Square) — A proposed $100 million settlement in a lawsuit against energy company Freeport-McMoRan over alleged damage to the coast continues to unravel, most recently with St. Mary Parish refusing to sign on to the deal.
The St. Mary Parish Council voted 10-0 in September against a resolution authorizing 16th Judicial District Attorney Bo Duhe to sign on to the settlement, which would require Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas to pay $23.5 million to fund coastal restoration projects over two decades.
The remainder of the money would be funneled into an environmental credit scheme that critics contend could result in little additional funding for coastal restoration.
The proposed settlement involves one of 43 ongoing lawsuits from coastal parishes that allege more than 200 energy companies damaged the coastline by creating canals and other development, despite federal permits authorizing the work.
The proposed Freeport-McMoRan settlement requires the approval of 12 coastal parishes and would require the Legislature to create a Coastal Zone Recovery Authority to administer the credit scheme.
St. Mary Parish became at least the fourth to reject the deal, while the Legislature has twice failed to approve legislation to create the Coastal Zone Recovery Authority, which critics have likened to an unelected bureaucracy that would operate like a political slush fund. Terrebonne, Lafourche, and Vermillion parishes have also opted out. Only St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes have agreed.
"The only ones that come out in this deal are the trial attorneys and they stand to make millions and millions by doing this," St. Mary Councilman Scott Ramsey said at a Sept. 14 meeting.
Marc Ehrhardt, executive director of the pro-energy Grow Louisiana Coalition, urged the St. Mary Parish council to reject the settlement because he believes it’s "a bad idea for St. Mary Parish" and "a bad idea for Louisiana."
"The number one reason is it’s better to work with the oil and gas industry in south Louisiana than to work against it," he told The Center Square.
Ehrhardt noted that the oil and gas industry has contributed $415 million for coastal work since 2017, while "the lawsuits have been around for a decade and they haven’t produced a penny."
Analysis from the Pelican Institute shows the lawsuits are, however, having an impact on jobs and opportunity in coastal parishes. The Cost of Lawsuit Abuse: An Economic Analysis of Louisiana’s Coastal Litigation report from 2019 estimates the state lost 2,000 jobs in the two years after the lawsuits were first filed in 2013, resulting in $70 million in lost wages. The report estimates between $43 million and $113 million in annual economic losses since the lawsuits were filed, which means $22.6 million less in royalty collections for state and local governments — money used for schools, roads and other infrastructure.
"It’s a great thing that elected officials across the state continue to reject attempts to further destroy our jobs with no benefit to the coast. Momentum is building toward what should be the goal: End the suits and get back to the hard work of coming together to protect our environment and create jobs for our people," Pelican Institute CEO Dan Erspamer said. "It seems clear after more than two years of trying to persuade elected officials and the public that this is a good deal, the effort has failed and the people can see through the big promises with no backing."
"At some point, the actions of parishes and the Legislature speak for themselves," Ehrhardt added.