Plaquemines Parish voters on Tuesday elected a council that appears to support moving forward with lawsuits that blame oil and gas companies for eroding the parish’s coastline and polluting its coastal waters.
The Parish Council originally authorized the lawsuits in 2013, but oil and gas interests persuaded members to stop them two years later — only to have the council reverse itself once again in 2016 and reinstate the lawsuits.
Oil and gas lobbyists pushed the nine-member council once again on Oct. 11 to kill the suits, but failed. That effort needed five votes but gained only a 4-3 majority, with two abstentions.
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So industry lobbyists and other business interests focused their efforts on Tuesday's council races, spending at least $70,000 to elect candidates they believed would vote to stop the suits. They claimed in mailers that the legal action has discouraged oil and gas development in Plaquemines and benefits only the trial attorneys who have filed the suits on behalf of the parish.
For their part, trial attorneys countered with at least $35,000 in donations to council candidates. The attorneys argued that the only way to hold the oil and gas companies responsible for damage caused by drilling was to sue them, and that the parish stands to win huge sums of money to restore the coast. (A judge would decide separately how much the trial attorneys would receive in compensation if they are successful.)
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The Plaquemines election results were closely watched elsewhere because the parish has filed 21 of the 42 pending lawsuits from coastal parishes against oil and gas companies, and it is likely to have the first case go to trial, as early as one year from now.
Oil and gas interests can take some solace from Tuesday's results, however. Kirk Lepine, a strong ally, nearly won the primary for parish president outright, with 48.4 percent of the vote. He will face off on Dec. 8 with the incumbent, Amos Cormier III, who trailed with 27.2 percent.
“People wanted change, a new direction,” Lepine said in an interview Wednesday, adding that few voters raised a concern about the oil and gas lawsuits while he campaigned, despite the money spent by the outside interest groups on both sides.
The parish president may have no say in the lawsuits, however, because the Parish Council has already filed them.
Richie Blink Jr., a newcomer elected to the council on Tuesday, said he probably talked with 1,000 voters during the campaign. “But it came up only 15 times,” he estimated of the lawsuits issue.
Blink and others said the big issues with voters were mosquito control, grass cutting on parish land and drainage.
“It was the basic services,” said Blink, an outreach coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation. Voters also “wanted to see a better working relationship between the council and the parish president.”
Louisiana Free Enterprise PAC and the Grow Louisiana Coalition, which is funded by four major oil companies, mostly financed a pro-oil and gas campaign of mailers and social media ads, while the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association made smaller contributions directly to friendly candidates.
“What hangs in the balance is a Louisiana that is plagued by excessive legal burdens, an unfriendly business climate and a place fewer people want to call home, or a state where the oil and gas industry thrives and Texans are moving into our backyards looking for opportunity,” Gifford Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, wrote in a column four days before the election.
In an apparent sign that they didn't have a good day on Tuesday, Chris John, president of Mid-Continent, and Marc Ehrhardt, the president of the Grow Louisiana Coalition, did not return phone calls on Wednesday.
Three members of the new council have said publicly that they support keeping the lawsuits. They are:
- John Barthelemy, who was elected without opposition.
- Stuart Guey, who was part of the council in 2013 that voted to authorize the lawsuits. He will return to office after ousting Irvin Juneau, who sponsored the Oct. 11 resolution to kill the lawsuits.
- Benny Rousselle, a former parish president who won re-election by 19 votes over Wayne Meyers, who wanted to kill the suits. Rousselle received at least 21 donations of $1,000 apiece from the four law firms. Cossich Sumich Parisola & Taylor is the only one based in Plaquemines Parish.
Carlton LaFrance Sr., who led one council race with 46 percent of the vote heading into a runoff, has voiced support for the lawsuits in the past. He did not return a phone call Wednesday asking for his views.
Beau Black is an incumbent who was re-elected without opposition and who abstained on Oct. 11 because he works for Shell.
Mark “Hobbo” Cognevich, who led his primary race with 45 percent of the vote and will face Kathleen Avist Antoine in the runoff, said he would abstain on a lawsuit vote because he works as a captain to clean up oil spills.
Two other newly elected council members, Blink and Corey Arbourgh, said Wednesday that they haven’t taken a position on the lawsuits.
The oil and gas interests apparently can count on only one solid no vote after Tuesday: that of newcomer Trudy Newberry.
“I want to bring back the oil field,” Newberry said Wednesday, adding that her husband is a consultant who services oil wells.
“I can’t support a lawsuit because the oil field is what puts food on the table,” she said, adding that she handles bookkeeping for her husband.
John Carmouche, the lead attorney pressing the lawsuits, declined to discuss the political implications of Tuesday’s votes, saying only, “We have a case to try. The lawsuit is the right thing to do.”