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Friday, October 24, 2014
Southwest Louisiana ,
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House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. (American Press Archives)

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles. (American Press Archives)

Lawsuit is in Kleckley’s hands

Last Modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 11:42 AM

By Jim Beam / American Press

Speaker of the House Chuck Kleckley could hold the key to the fate of a bill that is aimed at killing a lawsuit filed against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. Senate Bill 469 got out of the Senate last week by a razor thin vote and is awaiting action in the House.

Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, will send the bill to a House committee this week, and that decision could be critical for its future. Some attorneys have said they believe it belongs in the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee because it deals with obligations under the law. However, the legislation could also go to the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, which is identical to the Senate committee where it was resurrected.

The suit being attacked was filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. It claims that canals dug by oil and gas companies for their exploration and drilling activities hastened coastal erosion that has destroyed areas that helped protect the coast from hurricanes and flood surges.

HB 469 was conceived by co-conspirators Sens. Robert Adley and Bret Allain. When Allain couldn’t get a similar bill killing the lawsuit out of the Senate Judiciary A Committee, he attached its provisions to an Adley bill awaiting a hearing by the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The committee approved the bill and sent it to the floor, where it passed last week.

Political observers know that getting bills out of committees enhances their chances of survival. The general public can testify at committee hearings, but only legislators can debate legislation on the House and Senate floors. And in this instance, a number of them will vote with Gov. Bobby Jindal, who also wants to kill the suit.

The Senate debate last week was entertaining in many respects. Even Adley and Allain had trouble staying on the same page. They disagreed at one point on whether their hastily contrived bill was “retroactive,” which means it could go back in time and nullify that lawsuit. It clearly does that by trying to undo an action that has already taken place. Most legislation is “prospective,” which means something that will happen in the future.

Adley, who is involved in the oil and gas business, at one point said allowing the suit to continue would mean other businesses wouldn’t come to Louisiana if the suit was successful.

Do you think he really believes the companies would abandon the oil and gas reserves in this state that have made them extremely profitable for over a century?

Someone who watched the Senate floor debate said anyone who saw it might think they had stumbled upon a “Saturday Night Live” skit. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe it actually happened.

Sen. Daniel Martiny, R-Metairie, an attorney from Jefferson Parish, doesn’t like the lawsuit either. However, he sponsored an amendment that would have killed the bill. He believes, if it succeeds, the issue will definitely end up in court.

Martiny’s amendment said, “The provisions of this act shall be given prospective application only and shall not apply to any case filed on or before March 10, 2014.”

The vote was as close as you can get. There were 18 votes for it, and 19 against. If Sens. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, and Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, hadn’t been recorded as absent, the outcome may have been different. Or one of those 19 senators who voted against the amendment could have turned the tide the other way. Once the amendment failed, the bill passed 24-13.

The yes votes that would have derailed the Allain bill came from 15 senators that represent southern areas of the state and 3 from north Louisiana. Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, was one of the 15.

The no votes that kept the suit-killing bill alive came from 11 senators from south Louisiana and 8 from northern areas. Sens. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, and John Smith, a Republican who represents Beauregard, Calcasieu and Vernon parishes, were two of the 11.

Adley, a Republican from Benton, lives about as far away from the disappearing coast as any Louisiana resident can get. Allain is from Franklin, but he said his motive for the legislation is to protect landowners like himself from possible lawsuits in the event the courts let oil and gas companies off he hook. The landowners have benefited from oil and gas development on their property.

A number of newspapers and government agencies have supported the efforts of the flood authority that filed the suit.

“Ending the lawsuit without allowing it to get a fair hearing in the courts would be a disservice to Louisiana,” said the Houma Courier.

The New Orleans City Council and Jefferson Parish Council have urged legislators to reject all bills designed to curb the lawsuit.

The Times-Picayune said, “Lawmakers shouldn’t let Gov. Jindal and Sen. Adley short-circuit the flood protection authority’s lawsuit. A court can decide whether the lawsuit has merit. .... Lawmakers ought to base their votes on the public good, not on what might make a particular industry uncomfortable.”

The bottom line here is bigger than the oil and gas companies, the legislators who are trying to give them immunity from their responsibilities and the attorneys who are working for the flood authority. The goal is to halt coastal erosion and restore the coastline that is so critical to the economic and physical well-being of the people of Louisiana.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com.

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