NEW ORLEANS -- A strange weeklong dance ended Friday right where it was supposed to begin: With Gov. Bobby Jindal signing a bill to kill a New Orleans area flood authority’s lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies.
Jindal signed Senate Bill 469, the same piece of legislation he called a news conference Monday to sign with more than a dozen oil and gas industry lobbyists and sympathetic legislators behind him. Jindal ended up signing a different pro-oil-and-gas bill that day and announced that, “out of an abundance of caution,” he was postponing signing the anti-levee board bill until Attorney General Buddy Caldwell could review it further.
The warnings had come last weekend from a small group of four law professors, who opined that the bill’s language could inadvertently give BP an opening to challenge state and local oil spill claims in federal court, especially those seeking compensation for ecological damage and lost tax revenues.
Supporters of the bill to kill the lawsuit said the professors’ concerns were preposterous. But then Attorney General Buddy Caldwell came back with a letter adopting the same views as the legal scholars and urging Jindal to veto SB 469.
The original architect of legislation to kill the flood authority lawsuit, Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, was livid, saying Caldwell should have voiced his concerns during the session. But then more legal scholars from across the country joined the call for a veto, as did the New Orleans City Council, the Jefferson Parish School Board, and even Jefferson Parish President John Young.
Young's administration had consulted on the legislation during the session and earlier this week told The New Orleans Advocate that parish lawsuits related to alleged permit violations would not be affected by the bill.
But Young told WWL-TV on Friday that a separate set of lawyers handling the parish's BP oil spill claims later advised him that there was a danger for those BP claims if the bill passed. That explained Young's decision Wednesday to call for a veto, he said.
Just when it seemed the veto campaign had reached critical mass, Jindal announced Friday that he had signed the bill into law. He also appointed a replacement on the flood authority board for a key supporter of the lawsuit, board Chairman Tim Doody, The Associated Press reported.
Jindal’s legal team produced a detailed legal memo Friday, citing precedent and arguments for why existing claims against BP and future parish claims won’t be affected at all.
The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association cheered Jindal’s decision.
“This bill is focused on activities in the Coastal Zone, which only goes out 3 miles. BP happened 50 miles off the shores of Louisiana. So you’re not even talking about in the relative vicinity of each other,” said Gifford Briggs, LOGA vice president. “It was always the intent of the legislation to specifically go after the Flood Protection Authority lawsuit, not impact the parish claims, not impact BP and I believe at the end of the day, that's what the legislation did.”
But several people and groups said they were disappointed that Jindal wasn’t swayed by the weeklong push for a veto. Chief among them was John Barry, the ousted former vice chairman of the flood authority who wants the oil and gas companies to pay their share of damages to finance the state’s master plan for coastal restoration.
Barry not only contends that the legislation endangers state and local governments’ BP claims and their authority to collect for ecological damage and lost revenues due to future spills in the Coastal Zone, he also said the bill could fail to scuttle the lawsuit because the Lake Borgne, Orleans and Jefferson levee districts are also plaintiffs, and they were not specified in the bill.
“Of the four plaintiffs, three of them remain untouched, which makes it even more irrational that the governor would sign a bill into law which threatens BP claims around the state; which cuts off, without any doubt, future claims that happen inside the Coastal Zone; and at the same time very possibly does not do what the bill was intended to do, which is kill the lawsuit filed by the flood authority,” Barry said.
Barry also said BP played a more active role in lobbying for the passage of the bill than other oil companies. He said that is what raised his suspicion that the bill would allow the oil giant some avenue to fight the state and local oil spill claims.
Regardless of how BP responds, the lawsuit’s supporters are likely to challenge the new law in court. Glad Jones, the plaintiff’s attorney hired by the flood authority to pursue the lawsuit, vowed to “move to the judicial branch” to “sort this out.”
Critics said that by signing the bill in spite of the warnings, Jindal was putting his political aspirations and support for the oil and gas industry above coastal restoration and the community’s protections against future damage.
“Everyone involved in the passage of this bill owns the consequences, but no one is more responsible for shielding the oil and gas industry from accountability than Governor Jindal,” said Steve Murchie, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “He has undermined the efforts of everyone working to restore coastal Louisiana. Not only has he refused to ask the oil and gas industry to live up to their legal obligations, or contribute to coastal restoration in any meaningful way, he has actively blocked others from simply enforcing the law.”