By David Jacobs | The Center Square
(The Center Square) – A Louisiana House of Representatives committee on Wednesday revived an effort to take away parishes’ ability to sue oil and gas companies for alleged environmental damage.
State officials have intervened in the lawsuits and could move forward without parish involvement.
Senate Bill 440 by Sen. Mike Fesi, a Houma Republican, started out as an effort to create funds for any money the state receives from lawsuits or enforcement actions related to coastal permits. The stated goal is to ensure all the money goes to coastal restoration and protection.
On Wednesday, the bill was amended to include the goals of Senate Bill 359 by Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, which would establish that only the state has the right to bring suit. Critics of the lawsuits say that always has been the intent of state law, though supporters dispute that point and note that multiple courts have allowed the parishes to continue their lawsuits.
Hensgens said last week that he wouldn’t move his bill forward because a fiscal note, attached over his objections, would not allow for enough time to get the bill through the legislative process before the end of the session. Legislative staff create fiscal notes for bills that could cost the state money, and bills with fiscal notes must be approved by committees with spending oversight along with the relevant subject matter committees.
The note says the state will incur costs if state officials, namely the Attorney General and the Department of Natural Resources, continue the lawsuits. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jean-Paul Coussan, a Lafayette Republican, said the issue of whether Senate Bill 440 now needs a fiscal note will be decided on the House floor.
Critics say the lawsuits discourage the oil and gas industry from investing in the state.
“We have got to do what we can to bring jobs back to this state,” said Rep. Phillip DeVillier, the Eunice Republican who proposed the amendment.
Fesi said his bill puts the state in charge of making sure resources are used and projects are implemented in line with the state master plan, rather than allowing parishes to act independently.
“It puts everybody on the same track,” he said.
John Carmouche, an attorney who represents several of the parishes, said letting the lawsuits go forward would lead to settlements from the oil companies. He said the proceeds under current law already have to be spent on coastal restoration. And if the liability is resolved, investment becomes more likely, he said.
Carmouche also said the bill would jeopardize a tentative $100 million settlement between Freeport-McMoRan and several parishes. That settlement may already be in jeopardy because not every parish involved in the lawsuit has signed on, and there is some dispute over whether parish presidents opposed to the lawsuits can unilaterally end their parish’s participation.
Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng called the bill a “punch in the stomach” after all the work that went into getting so close to a settlement, and questioned lawmakers’ decision to take on the controversial issue during a pandemic-shortened regular session with limited public participation.
“The timing is curious,” she said. “We have been at this for seven years.”