Bill to stop Louisiana parishes from suing oil-and-gas companies dead for the session, author says

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A high-profile bill that would stop coastal Louisiana parishes from suing oil-and-gas companies over alleged environmental damage is dead for the session, the author said Wednesday.

However, senators approved a separate bill that opponents said could lead to the same result.

Sen. Bob Hensgens, an Abbeville Republican, said the fiscal note attached to his bill will prevent the proposal from getting through the legislative process before the regular session ends June 1. Since legislative staff said the bill could cost the state money, it would have to go through spending oversight committees as well as those focused on natural resources.

Hensgens vowed to continue the effort in future sessions.

“We all know we have a lawsuit problem,” he said. “No one wants to invest here.”

Senate Bill 359 would establish that state government under a 1978 law has sole authority to issue and enforce permits for oil and gas exploration in the state’s coastal zone. The bill would kill an effort by parish governments to sue oil companies for allegedly violating their permits and damaging coastal wetlands. State officials, who already have intervened in the litigation, still could continue the lawsuits as the primary plaintiffs.

Hensgens said his proposal would have streamlined the lawsuits and “put the state in the driver’s seat” as the law intends. Gov. John Bel Edwards opposes the bill, saying the parish governments have legitimate claims and deserve their day in court.

Legislative Fiscal Office staff member Rebecca Robinson said the possible cost to the state of continuing the lawsuits is what led to the fiscal note.

“The future costs of litigating these lawsuits is indeterminable at this time but likely to be significant,” her note says. “Alternatively, there would be no impact should the [Attorney General] or [the Department of Natural Resources] choose not to continue prosecuting any of the ongoing litigation.”

The lawsuits could be worth billions. Freeport-McMoRan, which drilled a small portion of the wells in Louisiana’s coastal zone, has agreed to a tentative $100 million settlement, though not all of the parishes involved in that lawsuit have signed on and the deal may fall apart.

A few hours after Hensgens told senators he would not attempt to move his bill forward, the body voted 20-15 to approve Senate Bill 440 by Sen. Mike Fesi, a Houma Republican. Sen. Bret Allain, the Franklin Republican who did most of the talking on the bill’s behalf, said the bill was simply an effort to ensure any money collected through lawsuits or enforcement actions regarding coastal permits should go to coastal restoration.

But Sen. Eddie Lambert, a Gonzales Republican who wants the coastal lawsuits to move forward, called Fesi’s bill “an attempt to confuse the court” that could scuttle the potential Freeport-McMoRan settlement and derail other lawsuits. And some senators said they expected the bill to be amended by the state House of Representatives to include the goals of Hensgens’ bill.

When asked if he would refuse to let his bill be altered in that way, Fesi would not commit.

“I can’t say that,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Connick, a Marrero Republican who also wants the lawsuits to go forward, requested a fiscal note be attached to Fesi’s bill as well. Senate President Page Cortez said that decision was now up to the House.