Last Modified: Monday, March 24, 2014 11:14 AM
A Louisiana trade association believes it’s time to give the boot to “greedy trial lawyers” and their suits against the oil and gas industry.
Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, met with the American Press editorial board Friday to give an overview of the lawsuits against the oil and gas industry that he believes are rooted in nothing more than greed.
“They want to paint us as Big Oil, which is the easiest thing in the world to do,” Briggs said. “It’s not Big Oil. Big Oil left in the 1970s and 1980s; it’s not about those guys. No one contributes more to the coast than the oil and gas industry.”
Briggs’s discussion with the editorial board came a day after LOGA completed its three-day annual meeting at L’Auberge Casino Resort.
A coalition of LOGA partners, Change Louisiana…It Matters, has launched a campaign called “Give ’em the Boot” — a reference to what the group calls “greedy trial lawyers” who press suits against the oil and gas industry to gain exorbitant damages for their clients.
Briggs said four Louisiana law firms, including one in Lake Charles, are filing legacy lawsuits against the oil and gas industry. These lawsuits, Briggs said, are generally filed by landowners for alleged contamination of their land that largely resulted from exploration and production activities in the 1940s through the 1960s.
Such lawsuits are given the term “legacy” because they involve land that was bought and sold many times between companies over the years. When each sale was completed, Briggs said, companies would indemnify each other of the environmental responsibilities. The new owner would be responsible for the property’s cleanup, which sometimes never happened.
“Because regulations have changed so much since the 1940s and 1950s, potentially what needs to be done obviously is considerably different than what needed to be done in the 1940s and 1950s,” Briggs said. “It’s called legacy because when the plaintiffs sue they have to sue every company.”
Briggs said landowners bring legacy lawsuits to court because they want to go after large oil and gas corporations like Exxon.
“But you can’t get to Exxon because of all of the indemnities,” Briggs said. “So you have to sue everybody in order to have Exxon at the table because you want the deep pockets.”
Briggs said there are more than 350 legacy lawsuits pending in the courts. He added that all of the contamination being alleged in these suits “is pre-1980 stuff.”
In order to clean up many areas, Briggs said, lawyers allege that a pit 30 feet deep needs to be dug and all of the soil must be taken offsite, processed and treated, and then returned to its original site. He said such a process could cost industry $300 million to $400 million.
“What happens in the lawsuit is a settlement,” Briggs said. “The landowners take a check in the settlement and then the oil companies go to the state to get a cleanup plan.
“Seventy percent of all the cases that the state evaluated required no remediation whatsoever in order to be in compliance with state standards,” he said. “So you’ve got a $300 million cleanup that ends up being a $500,000 monitoring plan.”
Briggs said LOGA and their partners are even more concerned with coastal lawsuits, which target oil and gas companies, as well as businesses that do industry-related work along the coast that requires permitting. Briggs said these suits could target companies such as Cheniere, Sasol, Sempra and the Port of Lake Charles.
“As a matter of understanding the Coastal Zone Management Program, permits typically don’t say anything about restoration,” Briggs said. “The program has guidelines that have to be considered when you are going to issue a coastal use permit. But it’s not in the permit, it’s a condition of issuing a coastal use permit; it’s an evaluation the state makes in issuing a permit.”
Briggs said that if landowners want to clean up their land, they can go to the Office of Conservation and file an environmental complaint.
“The office has to come out and make some kind of assessment in determining if there’s anything wrong,” he said. “If there is something wrong, they go to the last operator of record, issue a compliance order, and the operator has to come up with a plan and come out and fix the problem. But people don’t want to do that because it takes away your ability to get all of the other money.
“We care about the environment,” he said. “We know there are issues out there, and we want to address them. But there’s a difference between addressing a $3 million cleanup and paying $30 million for a $3 million cleanup.”