Bills to scuttle ‘Big Oil’ suit progress

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The state Senate’s recent passage of a bill that could scuttle a lawsuit over damage done to coastal wetlands by the oil and gas industry would also seem to scuttle any notion that the political winds in Baton Rouge that have historically favored the industry are shifting.

Still, “Big Oil” may not be completely rid of coastal protection lawsuits when the Legislature ends its current session.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry won when the Senate voted 23-15 for Sen. Robert Adley’s bill that would prohibit Louisiana flood protection authorities from hiring outside lawyers without approval from the governor.

The law would apply retroactively and is aimed at a lawsuit filed against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies last summer by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The suit seeks to force the industry to fix damage attributed to oil and gas pipeline and drilling activity in delicate wetlands that serve as a natural hurricane buffer for New Orleans.

If the House falls into line behind Jindal as strongly as the Senate, the lawsuit could be over.

However, the proposed new law – and other legislation that Jindal is backing – would likely be challenged. “There are constitutional challenges to all of these bills on multiple fronts,” said Bessie Dasbach, one of the lawyers representing the flood authority, which operates in the New Orleans area. And similar lawsuits, filed by local governments, are pending.

Jindal’s efforts to stop the SLFPA-E lawsuit don’t end with a single bill.

Current law limits Jindal’s power to replace flood board members, but the governor has managed so far to replace two members of the nine-member board and is one the verge of replacing a third whose term has expired.

Adley, a Republican from Benton, is now pushing a bill that would give the governor more power to affect the board’s membership. The proposal has been much-amended amid criticism that it frays insulation the board is supposed to have from political influence.

One recent version of the bill would have allowed the governor to remove an authority member for a violation of “state law or public policy.”

“The governor would effectively serve as the prosecutor, judge and jury,” according to an analysis by the New Orleans-based watchdog group Bureau of Governmental Research. It noted that the bill provides no opportunity for a member targeted by the governor to put up a defense.

Last week Adley removed the “public policy” language. But, as the bill awaits more Senate debate, some senators still question how the governor would unilaterally determine that a state law was broken. It’s worth noting that Adley has said the board broke the law when it hired outside counsel to pursue the lawsuit.

Legislative momentum appears to be on the side of Jindal, Adley and the oil industry.

“I cannot explain why legislators are not listening to the voices of their constituents,” Dasbach said when asked last week about the success the bills have had so far in the Senate – despite a poll commissioned by lawsuit backers that indicates public support for the lawsuit.

Litigation will continue no matter what the Legislature does.

Aside from any constitutional challenges to the bills Adley is pushing, there is also the matter of coastal protection lawsuits – similar to the one filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East – that have been filed by officials in Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes.

There is proposed legislation that could affect those lawsuits as well.

However, Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, has delayed hearings on his bill that would outline a way for local and parish governments to handle environmental cleanup disputes without going to court.

The Advocate newspaper reported that the delay came as some local government officials worried courts might use the procedures to support the oil and gas industry’s contention that local governments had no authority to file a lawsuit alleging noncompliance with a state-issued permit..

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter based in New Orleans.