Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New climate adaptation lawsuit in Louisiana

A flood protection agency in Southeast Louisiana is suing oil and gas companies including BP and Exxon Mobil for damages to wetlands caused by pipeline canals, and their case is making it above the fold of the NYT. Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East claims that the canals have altered hydrology in the area in such a way that has caused hurricane damage to increase and that, over time, will cause coastal lands to "slip into the Gulf of Mexico by the end of this century, if not sooner." Though they don't state it as such (itself interesting), the object in question in this case is ecosystem services: "BP and Exxon Mobil, you've destroyed the flood mitigation service these wetlands are supposed to provide to us, and we're going to hold you accountable for our loss" As cities and states attempt to preserve, design, and restore dunes, marshes, reefs, wetlands, etc. in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, SLFPAE's case will tell us more about the extent to which not just these habitats, but the climate-buffering services they provide will be treated by the courts (see Keith Hirokawa's work here and here for excellent first answers).

At first glance, a water agency in SE LA doesn't seem like the sort of entity to be bringing suit against some of the world's most powerful corporations. But they're pulling absolutely. no. punches. The gem of the case is here - to them, the oil/gas pipelines constitute a:

“mercilessly efficient, continuously expanding system of ecological destruction”

BOOM. So what are they asking for? 

"many billions of dollars. Many, many billions of dollars.”

Um...It's hard not to think of a certain late 90s comedy here, making it difficult to take the agency's case seriously. From the starting gates, the flood protection agency is equivocating on the role of the federal government, namely the Army Corps of Engineers, and why that entity shouldn't be held liable as well for its part in reworking the bayou's hydrology.

At any rate, it seems the lawsuit's hooks are not in the Clean Water Act per se, but in common law: negligence, nuisance, and some archaic LA code dating back to French rule called "Servitude of Drain" requiring downstream landowners to provide means for conveying water off adjacent upstream properties. It's not spelled out for us how SLFPAE thinks it applies to this case, but I suppose the argument is that BP and Exxon Mobil have altered the area's hydrology in a way that downstream areas too effectively drain, indeed conveying stormwaters onto higher ground than before.

Bringing it back: we can probably think of this as perhaps the US's second major climate adaptation lawsuit - NYT explicitly makes the link to the first: Kivalina, the Alaskan community that sued Exxon Mobil for the effects of climate-caused sea level rise on their village. The court there said that Kivalina's case was more a political question than a justiciable one. We'll see how SLFPAE's case pans out, but hopefully it'll regain some ground, as common law applications to the environment become increasingly tenuous, from Kivalina to Wisconsin.

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