As far back as the 1970s, landowners and environmental groups were able to stop specific projects or force companies to clean up isolated sites. But no lawsuit or state law has compelled the industry to fill the canals or dismantle old spoil banks.
After Katrina, a class-action lawsuit blamed oil and pipeline companies for "depriving ... New Orleans from its natural protection against hurricane winds and storm surges." The suit was dismissed last October.
In the early 1980s, then-Gov. David Treen proposed a coast-and-levee tax by slapping a levy of 36 cents on every barrel of oil and 6 cents on every 1,000 cubic feet of gas that crossed the coastal plain; but the measure didn't muster the two-thirds majority needed in the state Legislature.
"Today, I would recommend going to two bucks a barrel," Treen said. "That would give us about $1 billion a year. I just feel like they ought to pay for some of the cost we incur."
Eventually, petrodollars may provide relief. In 2006, Congress approved a plan to give Louisiana and other Gulf states a large portion of offshore royalties the industry now pays to the federal Treasury. By 2017, Louisiana hopes to get as much as $650 million a year.
Meanwhile, the anything-goes days for oil are over. Regulators demand the use of less-damaging techniques — directional drilling, rerouting of pipelines, wetlands mitigation. Private landowners often ask oil companies to clean up after themselves.
"My job is to make sure they stay on their right of ways, that they don't traverse onto vegetative areas or use machinery that is harmful," said Forrest Travirca III, a land warden for a swath of wetlands near Leeville held by a public trust.
"It's like strip mining. A good strip miner will repair the land."
Cruising in his bay boat through mangrove brakes and past tugboats and crew vessels docked at the offshore-drilling port of Port Fourchon, Travirca pointed out places where oil companies have patched up the land.
For its part, the industry balks at talk of paying for the damage.
"Worldwide, there's this notion that they want the oil industry to pay for everything," John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, said during the organization's recent meeting in New Orleans. "It's like the world considers the industry a cookie jar."
The industry denies that drilling damaged the delta that much.
"The real question is, what damage did occur?" said Jim Porter, president of Louisiana's chief oil lobby, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. "There's no clear-cut answer on it. But there is no doubt there are many, many causes for wetlands loss and access to oil and gas operations is rather insignificant."
In the 1980s, Porter was in charge of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the agency that regulates drilling and coastal conservation.
Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil Corp., said at the American Petroleum Institute meeting that there were "a lot of reasons" for the delta's decline, including the unstable geology there. "The land moves around a lot along the coast," he said. Geologists say there is evidence that slipping-and-sliding faults have caused land loss.