By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor
A stalled $100 million settlement between a dozen parishes and Freeport-McMoRan Inc. over alleged damage to Louisiana’s coast is moving ahead after state officials agreed to the deal on behalf of several parishes that refused.
A Freeport-McMoRan spokesman confirmed to NOLA.com this week the agreement was signed by all parties, though it still requires the Legislature to approve a credit scheme they’ve twice rejected to execute the deal.
The 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. A three-judge panel with the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last week returned one of the cases to state court, a venue preferred by the trial attorneys behind the lawsuits, and the ruling could pave the way for others.
The Freeport-McMoRan agreement requires 12 coastal parishes to sign on to the settlement, but at least four have refused: Lafourche, Iberia, St. Mary and St. Martin. Officials at the Department of Natural Resources, however, recently overrode the objections of local elected leaders to sign on their behalf, according to the news site.
“Government bureaucrats and trial lawyers continue to collude against Louisianans in backroom deals like the proposed Freeport settlement. It is clear state government has usurped the power and right of local government to make their own choices,” said Daniel Erspamer, CEO of the Pelican Institute. “These backroom deals are driving jobs and opportunity out of Louisiana while failing to provide the benefits to the coast they claim.”
The settlement would require Freeport-McMoRan to pay $23.5 million over the next two decades to fund coastal restoration projects, while the remainder of the money would be funneled into an environmental credit scheme that critics have likened to a political slush fund.
The deal would require the Legislature to create a Coastal Zone Recovery Authority to administer the settlement, though attorney John Carmouche, who represents several coastal parishes in the lawsuit, refused to discuss how the funds would be distributed, NOLA reports.
“They’re going to receive millions of dollars and so will the state for coastal restoration to restore the coast back to its original condition,” Carmouche told Louisiana Radio Network. “That’s what the suit’s about.”
Elected officials in parishes that rejected the deal have argued otherwise.
“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, a trial attorney, said at a Sept. 14 meeting when the council voted 10-0 against the settlement.
Marc Ehrhardt, executive director of the pro-energy Grow Louisiana Coalition, has also urged parishes to reject the settlement, pointing out that the oil and gas industry has contributed $435 million for coastal work since 2017.
“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.
Research from the Pelican Institute shows the state lost 2,000 jobs in the two years after the coastal lawsuits were first filed in 2013, resulting in $70 million in lost wages. The policy group estimates between $43 million and $113 million in annual economic losses since the lawsuits were filed, which equates to a $22.6 million loss for state and local governments for schools, roads and other infrastructure.
“As it did in the 2021 legislative session, the Legislature should continue to reject the sketchy credit scheme on which the proposed settlement is built. These environmental credit schemes have never delivered on their promise in any state they have been tried,” Erspamer said. “They have a long record of corruption and failure to deliver any real results. It’s time to end these punishing lawsuits, reject this outrageous government overreach, and get back to the hard work of protecting our environment and creating a state where everyone has the opportunity to flourish.”