James Gill: Industry spokesman doesn’t worry about the facts

Don Briggs should be a tough nut to crack on matters relating to oil and gas in Louisiana, having been president of the producers’ trade association since 1972.

For an attorney to make mincemeat of him at a deposition is thus quite a feather in the cap, and no doubt Rock Palermo will always remember Feb. 20, 2014, the day he forced Briggs to concede a stupendous ignorance of his purported area of expertise.

In a couple of hours, Briggs did more for the environmentalist cause he hates than a hundred tree-huggers could accomplish in a year of bashing Big Oil.

It is hard to read the deposition without feeling sorry for Briggs because Palermo had a huge and unfair advantage. He had gone out and acquainted himself with the facts in advance, and you’d never catch Briggs playing tricks like that.

The deposition was taken in connection with a lawsuit the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association has filed against Attorney General Buddy Caldwell. LOGA claims it was illegal for Caldwell to let the New Orleans-area levee authority hire outside counsel to handle its own lawsuit seeking damages from 97 oil and gas companies for ravaging the coastal wetlands.

According to LOGA, the law says Caldwell himself must represent the levee boards, which indeed it does, but only if he is “called upon to do so.” The LOGA suit may prove to be a waste of time, making Briggs’ discomfiture all the harder to bear.

Briggs probably won’t read the transcript of his deposition, however, because he never seems to read anything. He admitted to Palermo that he had not looked at the levee authority suit, which could cost his members billions.

Indeed, under questioning by another of Caldwell’s attorneys, Wade Shows, Briggs revealed that he didn’t even know what was in the LOGA suit about which he was now being deposed.

Briggs has always parroted the industry line that greedy trial attorneys and pro-plaintiff courts scare oil and gas companies away from Louisiana. He refuses to concede that the thousands of miles of canals criss-crossing the wetlands have contributed to coastal erosion. How many thousands of miles there are, he testified he had no idea.

The absurdity of Briggs’ beliefs became ever clearer as the deposition proceeded. Palermo produced a U.S. Geological Survey that concluded oil and gas canals were responsible for 36 percent of Louisiana’s staggering land loss. Briggs hadn’t read it but had “read other maps,” What maps? He didn’t know, but he didn’t believe the U.S.G.S.

Next up was a Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association report that found produced water discharged into the marshes was not much of a problem. Instead, it found that “dredging canals” and “impounding wetlands by spoil banks” have been “the principal cause of wetlands loss since the early 1950s.” Briggs hadn’t read that either. He admitted he had no facts with which to dispute either study. “I just disagree,” he said.

Louisiana was at the “bottom of desirable drilling areas,” Briggs testified, and the levee authority suit would intensify the “chilling effect” of its wayward justice system. But he was unable to name a single company that had left Louisiana, or declined to come here, for fear of litigation. Could he name any company that “considers Louisiana’s legal climate” in deciding whether to drill in Louisiana? No. Could he point to one well undrilled because of it? Same answer.

Gov. Bobby Jindal shares Briggs’ desire to derail the levee authority suit but not his perception of Louisiana as hostile to business. Palermo produced a press release issued by Jindal bragging that Louisiana’s business climate was the most improved in the country and citing several surveys putting us within hailing distance of the top. Those surveys had not caused Briggs to revise his views for the excellent reason that he hadn’t heard about any of them.

Briggs may be prodigiously incurious, but he has done the state a great favor by making it impossible for Big Oil, and its tame legislators, to get away with the big lie any more. For decades, any suggestion that the companies be made to pay their depredations has been met with a threat to leave the state. Time has come to ask why they are still here.

There is clearly no point asking Briggs, but it isn’t hard to figure out the answer. The oil and gas companies will be here so long as they can make obscene profits, and they’ll be doing that however the lawsuits play out.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.