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State Sen Bret Allain, R-Franklin, shown here in February 2017 at the State Capitol.

The Louisiana Senate narrowly passed a measure Wednesday night that opponents said was a disguised attempt to kill lawsuits filed by seven coastal parishes against oil and gas companies.

Supporters of Senate Bill 440 denied that, saying it was merely an attempt to ensure that any money collected from a settlement with oil and gas companies would go for coastal restoration.

SB440 now passes to a House committee for consideration after a 20-15 vote, which was the minimum number of votes needed to pass a Senate bill. The Senate needs 26 votes to override a veto by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a supporter of the lawsuits.

The Senate had been expected on Wednesday to take up Senate Bill 359, which contains clear language to nullify the parish lawsuits that representatives of oil and gas companies say have chilled investment.

But before the debate began on SB440, state Sen. Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville, SB359’s sponsor, announced that not enough time passed before the Legislature adjourns on June 1 to pass it.

An hour later, the Senate took up SB440.

What followed was a confusing and arcane discussion led initially by state Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, SB440’s sponsor, and then state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, who has more experience dealing with the issue.

“We’ve lost a lot of land over the years,” Fesi said, referring to Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

Allain said SB440 would strengthen the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which oversees coastal restoration projects.

State Sen. Eddie Lambert, also a lawyer, said he saw an ulterior motive as he tried to parse the dense language of SB440.

“This is a back-door attempt to pass 359,” Lambert, R-Gonzales, finally said.

Allain, who had taken over the debate from Fesi, then noted that he wasn’t the bill’s author.

“Is this a back-door attempt to pass 359?” Lambert asked Fesi.

“I have no clue,” Fesi replied.

During the debate, Hensgens paced throughout the Senate chamber.

SB359 would retroactively invalidate the parish lawsuits but allow the state Department of Natural Resources, which is under Gov. John Bel Edwards, or Attorney General Jeff Landry to pursue them.

Neither the agency nor the Attorney General’s Office has money to pay for outside attorneys and expert witnesses, however. The Department of Natural Resources estimated Tuesday that each case would cost at least $4.3 million.

The Talbot Carmouche Marcello law firm in Baton Rouge has filed 42 suits against about 100 oil companies for Jefferson, Cameron, St. John the Baptist, St. Bernard, Vermilion and Plaquemines parishes. John Carmouche has said in recent days that his firm has spent $9 million on just the first two cases. Under the parish lawsuits, the Carmouche firm is footing the entire bill.

The Jones Swanson law firm has filed for Orleans Parish.

State Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, said SB440 would jeopardize a $100 million tentative settlement that Carmouche has reached with Freeport McMoRan, a small player in Louisiana’s oil and gas industry.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Luneau, a trial attorney.

Allain denied that.

“I am simply trying to clarify that if there are judgments in the future, the money goes to the coast,” he said. “There is no hidden motive with me.”

State Sen. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, another critic of SB359, said Allain and Fesi wanted to pass SB440 and have it move to the House where oil and gas industry allies will attach the original language of SB359 on it.

Allain said he would not agree to any changes in the House.

But state Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, noted that Fesi’s view mattered most because he is the bill’s sponsor. He asked Fesi if he would reject an amended version of SB440 passed by the House once it returned to the Senate.

“I can’t say that,” Fesi said.

Several minutes later, Fesi said the lawsuits have driven oil companies out of Louisiana but said his real concern with SB440 is, “I’m here to save our coast.”

Voting for bill opponents claim was an attempt to kill lawsuits filed by seven coastal parishes (20): President Cortez, Sens Allain, Bernard, Cathey, Cloud, Fesi, Henry, Hensgens, Hewitt, Johns, McMath, Milligan, F. Mills, R. Mills, Mizell, Peacock, Reese, Talbot, White, and Womack.

Voting against SB440 (15): Sens Abraham, Barrow, Bouie, Carter, Connick, Foil, Harris, Jackson, Lambert, Luneau, Morris, Pope, Price, Smith, and Ward.

Not voting (4): Sens Boudreaux, Fields, Peterson, and Tarver

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.