Bill to derail levee suit moves to Senate

Despite pleas from retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré , a state Senate panel approved legislation Thursday aimed at squashing a highly charged lawsuit filed against nearly 100 oil and gas firms.

The proposal, Senate Bill 553, won approval in the Senate Transportation Committee without objection.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, chairman of the panel and sponsor of the bill, said it is needed because the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East failed to follow state law when it hired lawyers to launch the legal challenge.

“We believe that the process that was followed was inappropriate and violated the laws of the state,” Adley said.

Backers of the bill include the Louisiana Chemical Association, Exxon Mobil, the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association and Chevron.

SB553 would require officials of the authority to win approval from the attorney general and the governor before they hire lawyers.

In addition, lawsuits that involve a contingency fee, which this one does, would have to win approval of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Contingency fees assure lawyers of collecting a certain percentage of any settlement or damages award.

Honoré said the proposed law, and especially the retroactive provision, is objectionable.

“Why would you make it retroactive?” Honoré asked. “That is vindictive.”

Honoré , who is now involved in environmental causes, told the panel that Louisiana’s alligators, fish, oysters and other creatures are all suffering because of damage from the oil industry.

Adley’s bill is not the answer, he said.

“This is kind of a Putin-style democracy,” Honoré said of the bill, a reference to the Russian leader.

The lawsuit was filed by the authority in July.

It contends that energy firms should pay billions of dollars to restore coastal wetlands that the plaintiffs say were destroyed by companies through exploration and transportation activities.

The lawsuit also alleges the loss of those marshes and the erosion that ensued has contributed to higher storm surges that require more expensive flood protection systems to protect New Orleans.

Judge Janice Clark, of the 19th Judicial District, ruled last month that Attorney General Buddy Caldwell acted within his legal authority when he approved a resolution that allowed the authority to move forward with hiring outside attorneys for the lawsuit.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration has criticized the lawsuit and backs Adley’s bill.

Stafford Palmieri, policy director for the governor, appeared with Adley to explain the legislation.

Author John Barry, a former member of the authority, urged the committee to reject the proposal. “We all know this bill is about a specific lawsuit,” Barry said.

He said dozens of studies have shown that oil firms are responsible for major coastal damage. “The industry believes it is above the law,” Barry told the committee.

He said making the measure retroactive is offensive.

Barry, who was removed from the levee board last year, said the authority has some of the most qualified members of any such panel in the world.

Adley’s bill next faces action in the full Senate.