NEW ORLEANS — A vote on a contentious Louisiana Senate bill that would undermine parishes’ lawsuits against oil and gas companies keeps getting delayed, in spite of a full-court press by business and industry groups to get it passed.
Late Thursday, a spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards said the governor is against the bill.
“Some of these coastal lawsuits were filed by the parishes years ago — many before Governor Edwards took office — under statutory authority that was expressly given to them by the Legislature decades ago,” Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens told WWL-TV. “The bill in question seeks to retroactively divest them from the lawsuits that are already in progress, which the Governor believes is wrong. The parishes that have chosen to file lawsuits deserve to have their day in court.”
The bill, SB 359 by Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, would clarify the law on coastal use permits to prevent six coastal parishes —Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. John the Baptist, Cameron and Vermilion – from enforcing permit violations and to give that power exclusively to the state.
But those parishes already filed lawsuits against dozens of oil and gas companies back in 2013 seeking hundreds of millions of dollars. They already agreed on a settlement with one of the oil companies, Freeport McMoran, that stands to net them $100 million for coastal restoration.
A coalition of business and industry groups has taken out full-page ads in newspapers urging support for SB 359, saying Louisiana should "work with the oil and gas industry, not against it."
The ads claim the coastal lawsuits “drive away jobs, people and investments at a time when we need them most.” It isn’t lost on the bill’s supporters that the oil and gas industry is struggling mightily with record low crude oil prices and reduced demand during the coronavirus shutdown.
“This legislation was introduced in response to a large number of troubling lawsuits filed by local governments that have effectively blurred the lines of enforcement authority that the Legislature originally intended,” Hensgens said when introducing the bill to the Senate Natural Resources Committee he chairs.
Hensgens also argues that SB 359 does not “give the oil companies a get-out-of-jail-free card” or “kill the lawsuits,” but simply clarifies the state’s exclusive authority over coastal zone permits. It would, however, wrest control over the lawsuits from the parishes and hand full control to the state, which joined the suits in support of the parishes during a previous effort to undercut them.
Hensgens and bill supporters claim that if parishes win the suits or collect settlements, plaintiff’s lawyers will walk off with tens of millions and parish governments will direct some proceeds away from restoration efforts. They say SB 359 assures all the money collected from oil and gas companies goes directly to restoration.
Opponents of the bill argue that would effectively kill the lawsuits because the governor’s office and Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office have indicated they don’t have the resources to pursue the litigation.
They also say the parishes exercised their rightful power to enforce the state’s permits because the state relies heavily on oil and gas royalties and taxes and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources had turned a blind eye for decades.
“The parishes have won every lawsuit since 2013 to make them do what the permits required them to do, which is go back and restore the marsh to its condition. This is just one last-ditch effort Big Oil is trying to keep the money in their pockets instead of where they said they were going to spend it, which is on coastal restoration,” Jefferson Parish Councilman Deano Bonano said.
Bonano joined Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng, St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis and other local elected officials to testify against the bill in the committee hearing last week.
Baton Rouge plaintiff’s attorney John Carmouche represents the parishes and has poured millions of dollars in recent years into lobbying for the lawsuits and backing candidates who support them. He testified before Hensgens’ committee May 7, arguing the parishes are within their rights to hold oil companies accountable for damage they admit they caused to the coast by drilling wells, digging access canals and laying pipelines, without “restoring, revegetating and detoxifying” as required by their permits.
The bill passed out of the Natural Resources Committee on a 4-3 vote last week, but it's sat on the Senate floor without coming to a vote ever since.
On Thursday, after sitting on the agenda for three straight days without a vote, SB 359 was moved to a special vote on Monday. Also scheduled for Monday is a potential vote on a resolution by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, urging the parishes to drop the lawsuits. It would not have the force of law.
If SB 359 passes the Senate and the House, opponents believe Gov. John Bel Edwards will veto it because it would take away the parishes’ rights while they are already exercising them in court.
But Gifford Briggs of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association wasn’t deterred Thursday.
“We remain very optimistic about the legislation and its opportunity for ultimate and final passage,” Briggs said. “And we look forward to working with the (Edwards) administration and hopefully they will recognize the importance of having predictability, recognize the importance of the state being in the lead and the state being in charge of their own permits.”
Bonano said that if the bill passes and becomes law, the parishes are prepared to challenge the constitutionality of retroactively removing them from their own, seven-year-old lawsuits.