State Senate OKs bill that would sidetrack levee lawsuits

The state Senate fought off amendments Wednesday, then passed legislation that opponents say would end lawsuits filed against energy companies by some local governments, but supporters say would promote transparency in public contracts.

The amendments were pushed by opponents to water down Senate Bill 547. But the Senate voted 27-10 to approve the legislation widely backed by the oil and gas industry that had been accused in the lawsuits of being responsible for coastal erosion.

The legislation now goes to the Louisiana House of Representatives.

SB547 would require state agencies to detail the terms of the contract, who it is with, the scope of the work and whether the entity has the ability to pay. State and local government agencies would have 60 days to get into compliance or the contract would become void.

Opponents contend the bill, should it become law, would kill the lawsuits filed by a levee district and a couple parish governments against the oil companies.

Lobbyists representing oil and gas interests stalked the galleries of the Senate chamber during debate of the legislation that the energy industry and business community supports.

“This sends the message that any contract will be transparent,” said state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton and sponsor of Senate Bill 547.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, argued that the legislation, which was advanced by the Senate Finance Committee, should also be heard by the Senate Committee on Judiciary A. Most bills that deal with government contracts go through that committee.

Adley said it was the decision of Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, to direct the legislation through the Finance committee, which vets fiscal matters, and that sending SB547 to another committee amounted to an effort to try to delay voting on the measure.

Peterson’s amendment failed on 13 for to 24 against vote.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, then tried to add language that would have ordered the state Attorney General to quickly determine if SB547 could withstand a constitutional challenge.

Adley objected saying bills that are approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor are presumed to be constitutional.

That amendment failed on a vote of 14 to 23.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, then tried to change SB547 to ensure that contracts entered into by the executive department would be included.

Adley agreed that the governor’s office should not be exempted and he did not think it was, but did not want to change the wording for fear of causing some unintended consequence. Claitor’s amendment failed on a vote of 15 for and 22 against.

In July, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East filed a lawsuit in Orleans Civil District Court against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies. The authority oversees the massive levees and complex flood control system that protects much of the New Orleans area.

The litigation seeks damages for the extensive network of canals cut by energy companies through wetlands areas. The canals allowed increasing amounts of saltwater to intrude into the marshes, which weakened the vegetation and resulted in land loss, the suit says. Energy companies failed to hold up their end of the bargain by not repairing damage caused by their activities, the lawsuit claims.

Governments in Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes then filed a set of nearly 30 lawsuits alleging dozens of energy companies and their contractors destroyed and polluted the parishes’ coastal areas.

The oil and gas companies deny the allegations, saying their work was approved by state agencies at the time.

The government entities that filed the lawsuits used what is called contingency contracts to hire the lawyers who will research and litigate the case. The work likely will costs tens of millions of dollars to prepare for court. Lawyers agreed to take percentage of the amount awarded by the courts as payment.

Such arrangements are common in many civil cases and government officials says it keeps the agencies from having to raise the money for the lawsuits from taxpayers.