“I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage.” —Nathaniel Rich
In “Behind the Cover Story ,” Rachel Nolan speaks with Nathaniel Rich, a New Orleans resident and author of last Sunday’s powerful and authoritative New York Times Magazine cover story “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever ”—about how he came to write the piece, and possible consequences if the lawsuit fails . . .
Along the way, Rich hails The Lens  of New Orleans as “a fantastic local investigative news site.” We could not agree more.
Behind the Cover Story: Nathaniel Rich on the Legal Battle Over Louisiana’s Land Loss
You have lived in New Orleans for some time now. How did you first become aware of the massive land loss in Louisiana?
I was ignorant about coastal land loss before I moved to New Orleans four years ago, but that changed quickly. Louisianians have known about the loss of their wetlands for decades, but relatively few people outside the state seem to be aware of the problem or its scope. This is disturbing because it is a national crisis, endangering the existence of New Orleans as well as a large percentage of our energy infrastructure and shipping trade. It’s not just nature lovers who should be concerned. Anyone who cares about energy independence, trade or national security should be concerned.
Awareness of the issue is growing, however. Several excellent reports have been published in the last few weeks. One was published through a partnership between ProPublica and The Lens, a fantastic local investigative news site. Called “Losing Ground ,” it’s a graphic representation of coastal land loss. Another is “Louisiana Loses Its Boot, ” by Brett Anderson, published in Medium. Anderson makes the case for a new official state map that would reflect Louisiana’s changing shape.
How did you first hear about this lawsuit, and come to think that John Barry might be interesting to write about?
I learned about it when Barry announced the lawsuit at a press conference last July. I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage, but it hasn’t come close to getting the attention of, say, the Keystone pipeline.
Barry is a true obsessive, and I’m drawn to writing about obsession. I was fascinated to see a writer abandon a successful writing career, at least temporarily, in order to devote himself to a cause. In my experience, writers are happiest when they are alone in a small room with their work, so Barry’s decision to sue 97 oil and gas companies seemed to me especially radical, and indicative of an unusual personal commitment.
Oil and gas companies conceded responsibility for 36 percent of the land loss. Why don’t the companies pay for 36 percent of the damage to the coast—at the very least as a P.R. move?
Because nobody is making them. The oil and gas industry did not become the most profitable industry in the history of human civilization by accident. Why would an oil company volunteer to donate millions or billions of dollars when nobody is requiring them to? P.R. campaigns come a lot cheaper than that. Shareholders wouldn’t stand for it. Besides, every oil company has a different level of liability. You need some authority to determine how much each company owes. That’s what the lawsuit intends to do.
Who or what is responsible for the rest of the lost land?
Levees, primarily, mostly those built on the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers. The levees prevent flooding, which deposits sediment into the marshes and builds land. Of course without levees you couldn’t have cities in southern Louisiana. This is one reason it’s difficult for the state to press the oil and gas industry for reparations. Historically, Louisiana has pushed aggressively for the construction of levees, which may be an even greater cause of land loss than the canals and wells dredged by the industry. Thousands of dams built on the Mississippi’s tributaries, which reduce the river’s sediment load, are another factor. Then you have global warming. The land is sinking, and the sea is rising. It’s a pitiful combination.
If this lawsuit fails, what does the future look like for Louisiana?
If the Coastal Master Plan is not fully funded, the coast as we know it will be gone. Over the next century the towns and cities will be abandoned. New Orleans, if it continues to exist, will be an island. The coast might be doomed regardless, but the Master Plan at least gives it a fighting chance.
What might this whole fight in Louisiana mean for Bobby Jindal’s presidential ambitions?
I’m not a political analyst, so I couldn’t speculate with any authority about the next presidential election. Nearly everybody I interviewed in Louisiana, however, believed that Jindal’s extreme hostility to the lawsuit was motivated, at least partially, by his national political ambitions. He is in his final term as governor, after all, and he won’t likely run for state office again. Politically he no longer has much to gain, or lose, in Louisiana. But if he wants to run for president, he will need to win the support of big money. The defendants in the levee-board lawsuit include the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil—three of the Republican Party’s top donors. As William Goldman wrote: Follow the money.
Read “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever ” by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine (10/5/2014).
Photo of Nathaniel Rich by Meredith Angelson for The New York Times.