Legislature fails to stop parish lawsuits against oil companies for coastal damages


In this June 5, 2010 file photo, Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts an oil-covered pelican which was stuck in oil at Queen Bess Island in Barataria Bay, just off the Gulf of Mexico in Plaquemines Parish, La. Nearly $10 million in 2010 oil spill money is rebuilding the barrier island bird rookery off Louisiana. Work on Queen Bess Island had to wait for this year’s nesting season to end in August and must finish by late February or early March, before the next nesting season. The island, which was heavily hit by oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, supports Louisiana’s third-largest brown pelican nesting colony. (Photo: AP/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WDSU) — Lawsuits from coastal Louisiana parishes against oil and gas companies over wetlands damages are still alive after efforts to kill them in the legislature failed this week.

Payouts in the cases could reach billions of dollars, and the industry has said they’ve dampened investment in the state.

Parish governments have filed 42 cases against more than 200 energy sector defendants, with the Baton Rouge law firm Talbot Carmouche Marcello covering the up-front litigation costs. Attorney John Carmouche said the firm has spent more than $9 million on two of the cases, an amount the state would be hard pressed to cover if it was suing oil and gas companies. The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has estimated each case would cost the state $4.3 million.

“That’s on the low end,” Carmouche told WDSU. “I think it’s going to be more like $10 million a case. There’s no one who’s going to take on that burden.”

Gifford Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, said the state has the resources to hire attorneys to take over the cases and have them work on a contingency basis at no cost to the taxpayers.

The state, and not local parishes, has oversight when it comes to the drilling permit violates alleged in the lawsuits, he said. The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, which issues the permits, Attorney General Jeff Landry and Gov. John Bel Edwards have so far deferred to parishes and their private attorneys to handle the cases.

“The state has to be the enforcement authority,” Briggs said. “The industry is not … advocating for the lawsuits to go away. What we’re saying is the state is the proper enforcement authority.”

A bill from state Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, to toss the lawsuits outright advances from the Senate and the House Natural Resources Committee. But because of its major fiscal impact, it was not brought up in the House Appropriations Committee, where the state budget is crafted.

Another bill from state Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, targeted enforcement of coastal use permits and would have tossed the parish lawsuits. It advanced from committee but wasn’t brought up for a vote before the full Senate.

Carmouche helped structure another bill that would have established how parishes spend money from a tentative $100 million settlement with one of the defendants, Freeport McMoRan. That proposal did not make it out of committee. Briggs said the money would have gone toward economic development rather than directly to coastal restoration projects.

While industry interests have said the lawsuits are having a chilling effect on the state’s economy, Carmouche believes the money from settlements or court judgments could support decades of work on the Louisiana coast. Local workers will be made a priority when that work is handed out, he said.

“… All these contractors, that are suffering the most right now, will have tons of work. We’re talking about 20, 30 years,” Carmouche said.

The parish cases are now in federal court, although plaintiffs have pushed for them to land in state courts where judges are thought to be more sympathetic to their case. No trial dates have been set, although parties were asked in April to provide briefs supporting their arguments.

By: Greg LaRose

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