A day after suffering a stinging legislative defeat, oil and companies won a lesser victory Friday when the Louisiana House gave final passage to a resolution that urges parish governments to drop lawsuits that accuse the companies of destroying coastal marshes and wetlands.
The bill that died Thursday would have outright killed the parish lawsuits retroactively.
What exactly the companies achieved with the resolution passed Friday is not clear.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 7, approved by the House, 61-33, does not change the law, but it is an expression of legislative intent. The Senate passed the resolution, 21-15, on May 20 so it now takes effect. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a supporter of the coastal parish lawsuits, cannot veto it.
Friday's vote was mostly along party lines. The exception was that six Jefferson Parish Republicans broke ranks with their GOP colleagues and voted against SCR7. This means they followed the lead of Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng, who opposed the resolution.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, SCR7’s sponsor, said in an interview after Friday’s vote that she hopes the seven parishes will take heed of the resolution.
The lawsuits, Hewitt said, have “a chilling impact on oil and gas investment in the state. No one wants to invest in a state when you’re at risk of frivolous lawsuits.”
Hewitt said she has not attempted to determine whether government officials in the seven parishes – Vermilion, Cameron, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and Orleans – will take notice of SCR7.
State Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, who voted against SCR7, said he believes that Hewitt is hoping that federal judges will take note of the legislative resolution. The judges in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be deciding whether to have the lawsuits heard in federal court (as the oil companies favor) or in state court (as the parish governments favor).
“What the oil and gas companies can’t win judicially they’re trying to win politically with this resolution,” Stagni said in an interview.
SCR7 goes beyond urging the parishes to drop the lawsuits. It also says the parishes “have contracted with private legal counsel to improperly bring unprecedented enforcement actions.”
The resolution also says the lawsuits “violate the original intent of the Louisiana Legislature when the CZMA was enacted.” The Legislature created the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1978.
State Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette, handled SCR7 in the House Friday.
Echoing arguments made by Hewitt in previous days, Coussan said he does not support lawsuits against the oil and gas companies but believes that only the state – not the parishes – can pursue them.
“I believe we can send a clear signal that Louisiana is ready to move forward from these lawsuits,” he told colleagues Friday.
State Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, in challenging Coussan, noted that the state Department of Natural Resources has estimated that it would cost the state $4.3 million per case to take them over.
“Putting all this on the state would be a huge cost for the state,” Landry said.
There are currently 43 cases – 42 filed by the Talbot Carmouche Marcello law firm in Baton Rouge on behalf of six parishes and one filed by Jones Swanson on behalf of Orleans Parish. John Carmouche, an attorney, said his firm is bankrolling the parish lawsuits and has spent $9 million on just two cases in legal fees, expert witnesses and research.
Carmouche has reached a tentative $100 million settlement with Freeport McMoRan, a small player in in Louisiana. But only six of the required 12 coastal parishes have approved it.