James Gill: Jindal to far right of Big Oil on fees, taxes

A couple of organizations have been ruing the environmental degradation caused by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Pavlovian opposition to any fee or tax.

Perhaps you are thinking that’s only to be expected from the likes of the Sierra Club, say, or the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. Guess again. Nobody can dismiss Jindal’s latest detractors as job-destroying tree-huggers, for the gripe comes from the state’s oil and gas industry associations.

Just after Jindal signed that bill killing a Flood Protection Authority lawsuit seeking redress for wetlands destruction, this may seem like ingratitude. The view that Jindal is a lackey for the oil and gas companies is widely held, but when even they suggest he goes too easy on them, it is time to stop the presses.

Oil and gas weighed in after the state legislative auditor released a report concluding that, since Jindal became governor in 2008, the Department of Natural Resources has left close to 3,000 abandoned wells unplugged, spreading pollution and hazard across the state. If DNR’s Office of Conservation doesn’t pull its socks up, the number of so-called “orphans” will continue to rise. A solution will require an increase in the fees oil and gas pays the state, the report concluded.

Bring it on, Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs said in a speech in Lafayette. “Our industry knows orphan wells are a problem. We’re not the ones saying no, we won’t pay more.”

Neither is the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Its environmental affairs director, Richard Metcalf, said, “We would be willing to sit down and talk” about higher fees.

They should be doubled, according to Briggs, but “we have a state political administration that opposes raising fees or taxes.”

He could have added, “This is all part of a delusional quest for the presidency, an attempt to appease the doctrinaire right-wingers expected to turn out in force for GOP caucuses and primaries.” But oil and gas can hardly be expected to come down too hard on kowtowing politicians.

The auditor’s report found that more than half the 50,000-plus wells in Louisiana are not inspected at least once every three years, as the law requires. As of last year, 12,700 had not been inspected once since Jindal took over. When violations are discovered, they frequently go uncorrected.

Other oil-producing states require all companies to post a bond when they drill, but 25 percent of those operating in Louisiana are exempt, and the amounts required of the rest are not enough to cover plugging costs. This, the report notes, “may provide an incentive for operators to orphan wells.”

The state does allow inactive wells to remain unplugged on an assurance that there is a plan to resume operations. We have well over 5,000 that have been on the “inactive status with future use” list for more than 10 years.

The shortage of money that is no doubt to blame for some Office of Conservation shortcomings is, perhaps, more severe than it need be. The office has the authority to impose fines when its inspectors find violations, which happened 7,665 times between 2008 and 2013, but hardly ever bothers. It collects a measly $150,000 a year. Still, the wells never will be adequately policed unless oil and gas production fees, which currently bring the office $4.8 million a year, go up substantially.

Give Jindal a choice between helping the environment and Big Oil, which it generally comes down to, and he will not hesitate a second. He cannot have suspected that the companies harbored such a touching concern for orphans.

Briggs is evidently well aware of Jindal’s penchant for plugging budget holes by scooping up money designated for other purposes. He said in Lafayette that “there are good dedicated people in conservation and we can get them the resources to get this fixed,” but he fears the administration will rob the orphans.

Louisiana — the only state where Big Oil is greener than the governor.

James Gill can be reached at jgill@theadvocate.com.