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Fate Of Coastal Parish Lawsuits Against Oil And Gas Companies Is In Doubt As End Of Session Nears

May 22, 2020

An effort to nullify lawsuits filed by coastal parishes against oil and gas companies suffered a setback in the Louisiana legislature this week, but some state lawmakers say the issue is likely to reemerge in the final days of the session.

On Wednesday, Republican state lawmakers allied with the oil and gas industry pulled the most direct attack on the lawsuits, but narrowly passed another bill that critics say is a back-door attempt to nullify the landmark $100 million settlement 12 coastal parishes reached with Freeport McMoRan last year.

Senate Bill 359 would have added a provision to state law saying that only the state’s attorney general — not parish and local governments — could sue oil and gas companies for damage done to the coast.

Much of Louisiana’s land loss has been caused by oil and gas activity. Canals carved through the wetlands have eroded over time and turned to open water. The parishes want the companies to pay for that damage. Dozens of suits continue to wind their way through the courts.

Some state lawmakers want to put an end to the lawsuits, saying the potential for huge civil penalties is having a chilling effect on the oil and gas industry and costing Louisianans their jobs.

The bill was poised to earn the approval of the full Senate on Monday, but a member of the outnumbered opposition to the bill delayed the scheduled floor vote by requesting that it be sent back to committee so legislative analysts could assess its potential impact on state finances.

After a tense hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, SB359 returned to the Senate floor on Wednesday, only for its sponsor, Abbeville Republican Bob Hensgens, to pull it. Hensgens said there was not enough time for the bill to pass through the legislative process before the session ends June 1.

But the seemingly dead effort may have found new life in SB440, a Senate-approved bill that would restructure the way the state distributes money it collects for damages done to the coast.

Supporters of SB440, many of whom were cosponsors of Hensgens failed legislation, say it is merely an effort to direct money to the parishes that have been hit hardest by coastal land loss.

The state senators who support the coastal-parish lawsuits opposed SB440, saying that at best it would undermine the authority of local governments and at worst could be amended to revive SB359 in the chaotic final days of session.

After a lengthy and often heated debate, the Senate approved that bill with a 20-15 vote. SB440 will be heard by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Environment on Wednesday.