Last Modified: Sunday, June 08, 2014 1:21 PM
By Jim Beam/American Press
The legally questionable deed is done. Gov. Bobby Jindal has thrown caution to the wind and signed a bill passed during the recent legislative session that has become one of the most publicized measures since the state’s controversial right-to-work law was passed in 1976.
Senate Bill 469 has one major purpose — to kill a lawsuit filed against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. The legislation was deviously conceived, and it has spawned an air of uncertainty that could cost the state billions of dollars.
The law Jindal signed targets the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East in the New Orleans area that filed the lawsuit. The authority claims that drilling and exploration activities by the oil and gas industry contributed to the saltwater intrusion that caused devastating losses of valuable Louisiana coastline that is so vital to the state’s economic well-being.
The suit is awaiting a ruling in federal court on whether it should be moved back to state court. Meanwhile, state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and a state district court judge had agreed the flood authority had legal standing to file the suit. Those seeking to kill it ignored that reality throughout the debate on the bill.
Rather than await their chances in the legal arena, oil and gas industry officials took the issue to the Legislature. They found eager allies waiting to do their bidding. They included Gov. Bobby Jindal, state Sens. Robert Adley and Bret Allain, state Rep. Gordon Dove and a majority of lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
Adley and Dove have ties to the oil and gas industry. Allain is a large landowner, who admitted he was concerned people like him could be sued if the courts let the oil and gas industry off the hook. Some landowners wouldn’t let the companies fill in canals they dug that caused salt water intrusion.
Allain, R-Franklin, had prefiled SB 531 that was aimed at killing the flood authority lawsuit, but he couldn’t get it out of the Senate Judiciary A Committee. Adley, R-Benton, had SB 469 in the more sympathetic Senate Natural Resources Committee, and that is where the provisions in Allain bill’s were amended onto Adley’s legislation.
The measure wasn’t created until May 5, a date that destroys current claims being made by Jindal’s executive counsel, Adley, Allain and others that the bill was debated for three months.
In signing the bill, Jindal chose to ignore some 80 legal experts from around the country who agreed the legislation could wipe out the billions of dollars that local and state governments, businesses and other interests expect to receive as settlements over the 2010 BP oil spill.
Robert Verchick, a distinguished professor of law at Loyola University, first raised concerns about the bill’s possible impact. He is also a former deputy associate administrator for policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Verchick said there was time to think about what might happen to those settlements. Signing the bill “would be a foolish bet,” he said. But it’s too late now.
Thomas Enright, the governor’s executive counsel, disagreed with Verchick and his learned colleagues. Enright said the bill relates to claims arising from a use occurring in the coastal zone and the BP spill occurred 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. He said the legislation doesn’t affect parish claims against BP, preserves the court’s ability to impose penalties, doesn’t affect contracts and doesn’t impact on the authority of state agencies.
Supporters of the bill were quick to praise Jindal’s actions. That doesn’t come as any major surprise because they will benefit from the legislation.
Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said, “The signing of SB 469 is a huge victory for the oil and gas industry as well as the economy for the state of Louisiana...”
Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said, “... While not unexpected, it is disappointing that opponents to Senate Bill 469 failed to persuasively make these arguments throughout the process, and are instead choosing to do so now after the Legislature has passed the bill and the three-month session is complete.”
Waguespack conveniently ignores the short time frame in which this overreaching and legally complicated bill was conceived, debated and approved. As mentioned earlier, the bill didn’t take final form until May 5. It cleared the Senate May 7.
The House Natural Resources Committee didn’t hear it until May 21, and it was changed again there. Rep. Dove, a Republican from Houma who chairs the committee, didn’t give the opposition much time for its testimony. The full House didn’t debate the bill until May 29, four legislative days before the session ended. It was all done in less than 30 days, not in three months.
Waguespack isn’t exactly a neutral observer in all of this. He served as Jindal’s executive counsel and as his chief of staff, and his organization represents the oil and gas industry that is under attack.
Now that Jindal has taken the risky gamble, the next chapter will be decided when the courts will be asked to weigh in on the validity of the law he signed. Anything can happen, of course, but recent history demonstrates the governor hasn’t fared well in the judicial arena.