By Maria Marsh
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE – A committee on Wednesday pushed a bill to the House floor that seeks to invalidate environmental lawsuits filed by coastal parishes against oil and gas companies.
The House Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted 9-3 to advance Senate Bill 440, by Sen. Michael “Big Mike” Fesi, R-Houma. Advocates say the bill requires the money that the parishes would have spent on the lawsuits to go to coastal restoration efforts.
“If we’re going to believe that these lawsuits are about restoring our coasts, then we need to put the money where our coast needs to be restored,” Archie Chaisson, Lafourche parish President, said in support of the bill.
The committee voted to add amendments by Rep. Philip Devillier, R-Eunice, that would give the Department of Natural Resources, and Attorney General Jeff Landry sole discretion over the lawsuits instead of the parishes.
“In one of largest disasters–this global pandemic–in the history of the world, and I have to be here, fighting for our right, St. Bernard Parish, to sue a company that polluted our parish,” Guy McInnis, St. Bernard Parish president, said.
The amendment mirrored parts of a bill that Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Cameron, withdrew last week. That bill was designed to get the lawsuits out of the hands of private trial lawyers who have been representing the parishes in the suit.
Opponents say that neither the Natural Resources Department nor the Attorney General’s office have the money to cover the full cost of the lawsuits. Last week, the department estimated the cost of each of the 42 cases at about $4.3 million, or an aggregate of over $180 million.
Fesi’s bill narrowly passed in the Senate by a 20-15 vote last week after debate over the bill’s purpose. If the bill is passed in the House, it will move to a Senate committee because today’s amendment was not part of the bill when the Senate passed it.
The committee also approved a resolution by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, that calls on local governments to drop the lawsuits against oil and gas companies.
“Pull back the curtain, and what it’s really about is Senator Hewitt’s resolution to dismiss the lawsuits,” John Carmouche, a private lawyer who represents several coastal parishes, said, referring to the amendment to Fesi’s bill.
Hewitt said that the lawsuits have caused a chilling effect on the oil and gas industry, which generates a large portion of revenues in Louisiana. The industry has also taken a large hit in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that crippled oil prices.
“The oil and gas industry is in dire need of a shot in the arm right now,” Gifford Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said.
Crude-oil futures contracts sold for over $60 a barrel earlier this year and then fell below zero after the COVID-19 outbreak. They have since recovered to about $32 a barrel.
Opponents of Hewitt’s resolution are concerned that the oil companies will cite it in pressuring local authorities to drop lawsuits that have been ongoing for years.
“This resolution will be used in the courts,” Carmouche said. “It will be used to beat up local politicians.”
“This resolution, by law, might be nothing, but this is a statement to the citizens of Louisiana that we don’t care,” he added a moment later.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has expressed his support for the lawsuits by the parishes. The Legislature would need a two-thirds majority to vote to override any veto.
Members in support: Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette, Ryan Bourriaque, R-Abbeville, Ronda Butler, R-Ville Platte, Dewith Carrier, R-Oakdale, Phillip Devillier R-Eunice, Daryl Deshotel, R-Marksville, Neil Riser, R-Columbia, Bill Wheat Jr, R-Ponchatoula, Buddy Mincey, R-Denham Spring
Members in opposition: Timothy Kerner, R- Lafitte, Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, Rodney Lyons D-Harvey.