NEW ORLEANS -- The board that oversees the levees in the New Orleans region filed suit in state court Wednesday against about 100 leading oil and gas companies asking that they repair damage done by the industry's network of access roads and pipeline canals, which has contributed to the loss of thousands of acres a year of wetlands since the 1930s.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority is asking that the oil and gas companies restore the wetlands that once acted as an essential buffer against storms. Without that buffer, the authority said, too much pressure is placed on its levees, which were designed for protection against flooding of the Mississippi River, not as a bulwark against the Gulf of Mexico.
The flood authority's lawsuit marks another chapter in a state where politics and oil have been closely entwined for decades. Onshore oil production in Louisiana began in the early 20th century and peaked at 1.35 million barrels a day in 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration.
It isn't clear how much it would cost to restore Louisiana's coastal wetlands and reefs, but the sums could easily run well into the billions, experts estimate. The flood authority is asking the companies to backfill and re-vegetate canals, and reconstruct shorelines and banks.
The United States Geological Survey has cited oil and gas activities as one of the main reasons for coastal land loss. It has estimated that since 1932, the state has lost more than 1,900 square miles of coastal lands, enough to cover the state of Delaware.
In another development, a blown-out natural gas well blazing off Louisiana's coast poses fewer environmental dangers than past offshore accidents because it appears to primarily involve gas that disperses relatively easily, scientists said Wednesday.
"A gas well's not going to result in any kind of major pollution -- perhaps not even significant pollution if it's burning," said Ted Bourgoyne, the former chair of Louisiana State University's petroleum engineering department. He now runs the consultancy Bourgoyne Enterprises Inc.
Federal inspectors saw no sheens near the well during flyovers Wednesday morning, which indicates the gas is burning off without releasing oil or other hydrocarbons -- which are sometimes found in gas wells -- into the water. While it's not clear if the well in Tuesday's blowout contained any crude oil, officials and scientists agree that the latest mishap shouldn't be nearly as damaging as the BP oil spill that famously sent crude oil oozing ashore in 2010.
The fire broke out late Tuesday hours after the blowout, authorities said. Forty-four workers were evacuated from a drilling rig at the site, and no injuries were reported.
Associated Press contributed.