T. Taylor Townsend

T. Taylor Townsend is a lawyer from Natchitoches

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to pursue lawsuits against oil and gas companies to restore the eroding coast ran into a buzz saw of opposition from Republican lawmakers Tuesday during a special legislative hearing.

Nearly all of the Republican members on the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment sharply questioned the governor’s attorneys handling the lawsuits during a hearing that lasted the entire day.

“I feel like we’re discriminating against the oil industry,” state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, said at one point, in a comment echoed by other Republicans.

Miguez and the other Republicans made statements and cited detailed statistics that parroted talking points from the state’s powerful oil and gas industry.

State Rep. Pat Connick was the only legislator who challenged the industry and its political allies.

“The fact of the matter is that the oil and gas industry has a huge impact on the Legislature and the governor,” said Connick, R-Marrero. “Look at the push back from this committee to find a way to resolve the problem…A lot of them make money in the oil and gas industry…They’re going to protect their own self-interest.”

Connick & Connick is one of the law firms representing Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes in their lawsuits against oil and gas, but Pat Connick said he is not part of the firm.

The practical effect of the Republicans’ criticism is not clear because the lawsuits are now a legal matter, but the Legislature will ultimately have to decide how much the state’s outside attorneys receive if they win the case.

Donald Price, a special counsel at the Department of Natural Resources, said the governor’s office has had to intervene in lawsuits filed by coastal parishes – five have now filed – to protect the state’s interests.

Republican lawmakers questioned why the governor has said he will sue on behalf of coastal parishes that choose not to file on their own.

Matthew Block, the governor’s executive counsel, responded by saying Edwards wants all the parishes to be involved in the legal case to further an effort to reach a settlement with oil and gas companies.

Industry officials have shown no interest, at least publicly, in discussing a possible settlement with the governor, his attorneys or the parishes.

“When you have an industry that continues to deny and ignore their responsibility even though they’ve violated the law, something has to be done,” trial attorney John Carmouche told the committee in explaining why the five parishes that his law firm represents filed suit.

At issue are permits that companies had years ago with the Department of Natural Resources to drill and explore for oil and gas.

The governor’s office – and Carmouche – contends that the oil companies violated the law by failing to fill canals they dug to carry out their work and by dumping “produced water” into the wetlands that eroded land. The governor’s office, citing industry studies, believes that oil and gas caused anywhere from 38 to 70 percent of the destruction.

The industry and its supporters said much of the damage stems from state officials not doing their job.

“It’s DNR’s job to make sure they comply with the permit,” Mark Poche, a member of the police jury in Vermilion Parish.

Vermilion is one of the five parishes that has filed suit, but the parish’s district attorney filed it. The police jury afterward unanimously opposed, Poche said, in a sign of the heated debate the issue is prompting.

The Republican allies of oil and gas got members of the governor’s team to acknowledge that DNR failed to require companies to restore the damage they caused years ago.

The Republican allies also questioned why the Edwards administration is suing only the companies when the Corps of Engineers (while building river levees), farmers, timber companies and even nutria have caused much of the damage.

“Why don’t we go all out and get everybody at the table?” asked state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma.

After joking that the state couldn’t sue nutria, Thomas Harris, DNR’s secretary, had an answer for Zeringue.

“All we’re asking them is to pay for their share of coastal land loss,” Harris said. “We are not asking the industry to pay for anything they didn’t do.”

The Republicans also beat up on the governor’s attorneys for hiring outside law firms to handle the case.

Block said the outside attorneys – led by Taylor Townsend, a former state House member from Natchitoches who raised campaign money for Edwards last year – are trusted by the governor to represent the state’s interests.

Wilbur Stiles, the chief deputy to Attorney General Jeff Landry, said the contract is contingency-based, a view disputed by Block, the governor’s attorney. Landry has yet to say whether he will approve the contract.

A paradox hung over Wednesday’s legislative hearing. The parishes most at risk of slowly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico – particularly Lafourche and Terrebonne – are the most vociferous opponents of suing the oil and gas companies, because their local economies depend on the industry.

Restoring the coast over the next 50 years could cost as much as $100 billion. None of the Republicans – or even anyone else – has been able to explain how to pay for the full cost. Edwards has said that any money a successful lawsuit against oil and gas would go for rebuilding coastal wetlands.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.