Parishes not part of effort to sidetrack wetland suits _lowres

Advocate Photo by MICHELLE MILLHOLLON -- State Rep. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said Tuesday that he was postponing legislation he sponsored that would impact the lawsuits filed by some coastal parishes against oil and gas companies.

Even as the Louisiana Legislature is moving toward derailing the lawsuit a New Orleans-area levee board filed against 97 energy companies for damage to coastal marshes, lawmakers appear to be backing off action against similar litigation filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.

It’s too early to say the parishes are off the hook for the session, lobbyists and legislators agree.

“But they do appear to be backing off,” said John Carmouche, the Baton Rouge attorney who represents Jefferson and Plaquemines parish governments in the lawsuits seeking compensation for environmental damage caused during oil and natural gas drilling activities over the years.

Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, said Wednesday that until the courts resolve the issue of whether parish governments can file lawsuits in the name of the state, “it’ll be hard to move any legislation.”

“The parishes are out at this point in time,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, adding he was concerned by the fears articulated by local and parish officials that the efforts would undermine the authority of local and parish governments.

The oil and gas industry had hoped parish governments would ride with them in House Bill 862, which would detail a way to handle environmental cleanup disputes without going to court. But, state Rep. Joel Robideaux, the measure’s chief sponsor, pulled HB862 from the calendar on Tuesday shortly before a House committee could hear and vote on the legislation.

“We amended in a way that I thought the parishes would be supportive of the bill,” said Robideaux, R-Lafayette. “At this point the local parish governments have not indicated that they could be supportive.”

Robideaux “voluntarily deferred” HB862, a parliamentary procedure that would allow him revisit the measure during the remaining five weeks of the legislative session. But he said unless substantial progress is made, he would not bring up the legislation and ask his colleagues to vote against their parish elected officials.

HB862, generally, would have set up a specific process for local and parish governments to secure environmental cleanup and coastal wetlands repair from private companies operating under a state permit. Opponents feared that some courts might use the procedures enacted by the Legislature to support the oil and gas industry’s contention that local and parish governments have no authority to file a lawsuit alleging noncompliance with a state-issued permit.

“Essentially, Robideaux’s bill is trying to emasculate the authority and autonomy of local governments to take care of the direct needs of our citizens,” said Jefferson Parish President John Young, who led the opposition to Robideaux’s bill.

Young also heads up Parishes Against Coastal Erosion. Sixteen of the 20 coastal parishes involved with PACE, which initially rallied around the issue of flood insurance increases, oppose legislation that would limit that ability. The vast majority of those parishes have not filed their own suits. The other four parishes in the organization have taken no position, he said.

“Whether you’re pursuing this lawsuit or not, you certainly want this tool in your toolbox to protect your citizens,” Young said.

PACE is fighting against Robideaux’s bill as well as identical measures filed by other lawmakers, including Jefferson Parish Republican Rep. Cameron Henry. The organization plans to oppose any measure that would in any way impede their authority to file such suits, Young said.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser has opposed the suit filed by his council and it was not clear this week where he stood on Robideaux’s bill. Nungesser could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.

On the other side is state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who is the primary mover of legislation aimed at sidetracking the lawsuits against the oil and gas industry.

“The parishes are opposed to the coastal bills. But there’s a lot of this process left, and we won’t know until we get through the political process,” Adley said Tuesday night. “Right now everything is on hold to see what agreements can be reached.”

Adley sponsored Senate Bill 553, which is aimed at derailing a July 2013 lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East. The New Orleans area levee board claims when drilling and producing oil and natural gas, privately owned energy companies criss-crossed the marshes with canals. Salt water moved into the marshes and killed the vegetation that held down storm surges. The levee board claims that 97 oil and gas companies did not fulfill their obligations to repair the land.

The Jindal administration and energy interests oppose the levee board lawsuit and support legislative efforts to derail the litigation before a court rules.

SB553 outlines the process for state agencies to follow when hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits. Since the Flood Protection Authority failed to follow those procedures, that lawsuit could be voided. The levee board argues that it falls under a different legal entity that follows different laws, the procedures for which were followed in hiring attorneys and filing the lawsuit.

On a vote of 23-15, the state Senate approved SB553 last week and the measure is awaiting a hearing in the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee.

Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes filed a set of nearly 30 lawsuits alleging dozens of energy companies and their contractors destroyed and polluted the parishes’ coastal areas, mirroring the philosophy, if not the exact tactics, of the levee board litigation. The companies ignored state laws that required coastal land used by oil and gas companies to be maintained properly and eventually restored to its original condition, according to the parish suits. The failure to take those actions has been linked to significant coastal erosion in the state, and the suits contend that the company’s actions led to contamination of coastal water and land with toxins.