A proposal pushed by Louisiana’s oil and gas industry to let refineries and other industrial plants to keep secret some environmental violations — and be immune from penalties for them — failed to clear the state House Thursday after a lengthy debate.

The idea drew fierce opposition and criticism that it cloaked the environmental impacts of the state’s petrochemical industry in secrecy. A divided Louisiana House voted 46-41 for the bill, seven votes short of the 53-vote majority needed to pass, leaving its fate this session unclear. 

The measure would create a “self-audit” system, potentially allowing 1,600 facilities throughout the state to voluntarily report violations of environmental rules to state regulators. The information the companies volunteered would be kept confidential and could not be used against the companies to penalize them.

House Bill 615, was carried by state Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette. The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association pushed the idea and helped present it in a recent committee hearing. A long list of industry groups and firms like Shell, Entergy and Cheniere Energy are among the supporters.

It has also garnered fierce opposition. Environmental groups have dubbed it the “pollution secrecy act,” and say it would give the state environmental agency’s regulatory power to the companies themselves.

As of Thursday afternoon, opponents had sent nearly 5,000 messages to lawmakers urging them to kill the measure, according to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said the concerns voiced on the House floor should demonstrate the bill is "contrary to common sense." She also pointed to the 5,000 messages sent by citizens.  

"Legislators should seriously consider whether it's in the state's or their best interest to put this irresponsible, half-baked idea into law," she said. 

Lawmakers engaged in a long battle over the measure with proponents saying it would encourage industry to self-report “minor” infractions that taken together would help avert major problems. Critics decried it as a way for industry to hide environmental problems and skirt due process.

“This bill is very dangerous,” said state Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, who cited a cyanide plant in Waggaman that has had environmental problems. “We’re representing the people here. This is the people’s House. It’s not a House of oil and gas.”

Cornerstone Chemical, company involved in cyanide plant lawsuit, has history of infractions

Bishop could potentially bring the bill back for a vote during this legislative session, which ends June 6. Eighteen representatives were not in the chamber when the vote was taken. Asked whether he intends to bring it back this session, Bishop said Thursday evening, "only time will tell." 

The idea is not a new one. The influential Louisiana Association of Business & Industry pushed a similar bill in 1997 as one of its top priorities that year. But the bill ran into roadblocks from the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Advocate archives, and failed to make it into law.

The measure drew opposition at the time, with then-state Sen. James Cox, D-Lake Charles, calling it the “most unpopular bill in the state.” Environmental groups and lawmakers including then-state Rep. Kip Holden also opposed the bill. 

“I don’t know why we’re seeing this bill 22 years later,” said Kathy Wascom, an environmentalist who was around when LABI pushed the 1997 bill. “I don’t know why they’re bringing it up at this time unless they have something they really want to hide that’s a real problem. Hiding information is the whole point.”

Bishop pointed to the Trump administration's EPA, which last year announced a "renewed emphasis" on self-disclosure violation policies. But that effort was focused on new owners when they take over facilities to find issues and report them. Lawmakers shot down an amendment to make Bishop's bill apply only to new owners. 

An EPA spokesperson said the agency had not met with Bishop on his bill and does not normally comment on pending legislation. 

Tyler Gray, head of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, who presented the new bill at committee with Bishop recently, argued it would help encourage companies to self-report violations, and free up manpower at LDEQ to focus on “bad actors.”

Gray said the system would let regulators see more of what’s going on in facilities. He also said the exemptions to the system laid out in the bill would prevent serious or criminal acts from being kept confidential or included in the process.

Companies currently aren’t incentivized to report violations, he added.

“They’re not going to do it at this point,” Gray said in committee earlier this month. "We’re trying to create an environment in which they would report.”

Proponents point to a host of other states that have audit privilege and immunity laws in place, including most recently Oklahoma, which passed a law allowing similar protections.

Jonathan Henderson, a lobbyist for LEAN and the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the bill comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that pushed “model policy” in statehouses throughout the country. ALEC has a model bill called the Uniform State Environmental Audit Privilege Act, which creates an environmental audit system, much like Bishop’s bill.

Bishop’s bill is not the exact same as ALEC’s bill, though Henderson said it expands the ALEC bill’s privilege and immunity provisions. Asked by state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, whether the measure is an ALEC bill, Bishop said it is not, and that he has never been to the organization’s website.

“This privilege allows companies to hide results that may prove harmful, allowing for environmental destruction to occur without penalty,” Henderson said. “Laws like this make us less safe. Period.”

Perry Theriot, a lawyer with the state Department of Environmental Quality, could not say exactly what would be covered by the bill if it passed.

“It’s an extensively technical bill and it’s hard for us to really determine what exactly it would (cover),” Theriot said.

The system would likely be used more by larger companies than small ones, Theriot added. He also pointed to the EPA's self-audit program, though it is not as favorable to industry as Bishop’s bill.

DEQ spokesman Gregory Langley said the agency does not take a position on legislation. But he said the department is “concerned about the financial impact on the agency.” The department estimates it would lead to an increase in costs of about $600,000, requiring seven new staffers to review the audits.

The department also said 1,600 facilities throughout the state could take advantage of the audit process, including 475 with air permits, 375 with solid or hazardous waste permits and 750 with water permits. The agency assumed a quarter of them, 400, would take advantage of the process in a given year.

Voting to allow voluntary reporting environmental violations (46): Speaker Barras and Reps. Abraham, Abramson, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Berthelot, Bishop, Bourriaque, Brass, Carmody, S. Carter, Coussan, Crews, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Dwight, Edmonds, Falconer, Garofalo, Gisclair, Guinn, L. Harris, Hoffmann, Horton, Huval, Ivey, M. Johnson, N. Landry, Leopold, McFarland, McMahen, Miguez, G. Miller, Moss, Pearson, Pope, Pugh, Pylant, Richard, Schexnayder, Simon, Stefanski, Turner, White and Zeringue.

Voting against HB615 (41): Reps Adams, Armes, Bagneris, Billiot, Bouie, T. Brown, Carpenter, G. Carter, Chaney, Connick, Cox, Duplessis, Foil, Franklin, Gaines, Glover, J. Harris, Henry, Hilferty, Hill, Hodges, Jackson, Jefferson, R. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, T. Landry, LeBas, Leger, Lyons, Mack, Marcelle, Marino, Moore, Jay Morris, Muscarello, Smith, Stagni, Stokes, Talbot and Thomas.

Not Voting (18): Rep. Anders, C. Brown, R. Carter, Davis, Emerson, Hollis, Howard, James, Jenkins, LaCombe, Larvadain, Magee, D. Miller, Jim Morris, Norton, Pierre, Seabaugh and Wright.


Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.