Like the rusted oil drums and toxic ponds from drilling activities years ago, the legacy lawsuit controversy, long thought to have been settled, is emerging again in this year’s contest for governor.
Oil and gas, which has a $74 billion impact on the state’s economy, has split between two Republican candidates: U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle.
Both Vitter and Angelle have been good to energy companies in Louisiana, so industry leaders say it’s tough choosing between the two. One of the scoring rubrics most often cited is how the legacy lawsuit issue played out in 2012.
The issue turned into a bitter contest that pitted oil and gas against landowners over how to repair damages from drilling and production activities from years ago when cleanup standards were lax. There are about 20,000 such sites around Louisiana and about 350 lawsuits.
Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello handles most of that litigation for the landowners. The Baton Rouge firm also is spending about $1 million for the recent commercials that dredge up U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s darkest moments, according to campaign financial disclosures released last week.
Don Briggs, of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, says he’s a Vitter man for lots of reasons. A big one, though, is that Vitter embraced what his members had been telling anyone who would listen: Lawyers unnecessarily drove up costs and got in the way of cleaning up legacy sites.
He likes Angelle, and thought he did a good job as secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees oil and gas. But Briggs remembers Angelle sitting on the other side of the table back in 2012, initially opposed, or at best neutral, regarding the industry’s efforts.
That’s true, says state Sen. Robert Adley, the Benton Republican and former oil and gas man who handled the legacy lawsuit legislation for the industry.
But some oilmen fail to also recall that Angelle was following the orders of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jimmy Faircloth, who is Jindal’s go-to lawyer, represented the big landowners, some of whom donated to the governor’s campaigns.
In May 2012, just as the legacy lawsuit legislation was gearing up, industry blasted Jindal for taking “in excess of $500,000” from “trial lawyers.” Vitter then emailed and tweeted to supporters that Jindal should be more involved.
“Everyone knows that the Jindal administration and the Vitter group were like oil and water,” Adley said. “As Vitter became more involved, it literally forced Jindal to become more involved, which led ultimately to all of the pieces of legislation that we passed.”
As head of DNR for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Angelle was the tip of her spear in the first efforts to tighten the law on the issue.
“It was the knowledge that Angelle carried with him from the Blanco administration that frankly put Jindal in the position,” Adley said, “… and gave him the expertise needed to get the bills passed.”
Vitter seems to have more support in the energy industry, but he started locking up oil and gas money before making his run for governor official, which was six to eight months before Angelle started testing the waters.
Vitter picked up contributions from Anderson Oil and Gas President William Anderson, ExxonMobil Chemical Co. President Neil Chapman, Lucas Oil Products Inc., and Koch Industries.
But Angelle is not without contacts in the energy industry.
Oil and gas ponied up more than $350,000 for Angelle in the, literally, days before returning to his energy industry-regulating post at DNR after serving for six months as interim lieutenant governor. And Houston oilman James C. Flores, who, like Angelle, started out as a Lafayette land man, gave $1 million to Angelle’s Louisiana Rising PAC.
Chris John, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said he prefers to think that the choice has split along lines of comfort.
Oilmen whose assets are onshore dealt with the state and thus have a better relationship with Angelle, John said. Companies with offshore assets spent most of their time dealing with federal authorities and are closer to Vitter.
John, who as a congressman lost a U.S. Senate race to Vitter, said he and the association are not taking an official position, at least through the Oct. 24 primary.
But industry leaders realize that whoever wins will have to overhaul the state’s financial and budgeting structures. In the past, that often has translated into taxing oil and gas.
That’s what energy leaders will be looking at when it comes time to vote, he said.
Mark Ballard, The Advocate’s Capitol bureau chief, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.