Litigating Land Loss: An Analysis of Three Attempts to Hold Oil Companies Accountable for Coastal Erosion

Comment by Jacob J. Pritt

In the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, residents of South Louisiana began to ask some monumental questions—what happened to allow such extensive damage, whom can we hold accountable, and how?  It is undisputed that almost a century’s worth of coastal erosion and wetland loss significantly contributed to the storm damage, removing most of the state’s last long-standing buffer against winds and storm surge. Conservative estimates suggest that nearly forty percent of this land loss was caused by oil exploration and production activities, including canal dredging and subsurface extraction. Over the past five years, a flurry of litigation on behalf of private landowners, governmental agencies, and parishes has commenced in an effort to hold oil companies accountable for such damage.

This Comment analyzes the legal theories behind these lawsuits and presents a path under which private landowners and governmental entities may succeed in future litigation.  First, the Comment briefly discusses the history of oil and gas activity in South Louisiana, focusing on the causes of land loss and briefly mentioning successful methods of fighting it.  Next, Part III closely analyzes the most high-profile litigation to date, the suit by the Board of Commissioners of the South Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—East (SLFPA or the Board) and explains why the suit was unsuccessful.  The following Part evaluates potential future lawsuits on behalf of private landowners through the lens of a recently tried case, arguing that such landowners may successfully bring breach of contract claims against companies with rights-of-way over their property.  The final Part examines the pending litigation brought by multiple parishes, arguing that they could potentially succeed in state court under Louisiana’s oil and gas permitting laws.  This Comment intends to serve as both a detailed briefing on the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in SLFPA’s lawsuit, as well as a prospective look at how future claims brought by private landowners and parish governments can be successful.

About the Author

Jacob J. Pritt: J.D. candidate 2019, Tulane University Law School; B.A. 2016, Harvard University.


93 Tul. L. Rev. 387 (2018)