Deal would derail coastal lawsuit

Negotiations target levee board claims

Legislators plan to modify the wording of a bill Thursday morning to sidetrack a controversial lawsuit filed by a New Orleans-area levee board against 97 oil and gas companies, without disrupting similar litigation filed by parish governments.

Lawyers and lobbyists hammered out language throughout Wednesday.

The sweeping amendment to Senate Bill 469 is scheduled to be considered Thursday morning by the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources.

“The amendment is basically the bill,” said Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association. “There are still some language discussions. But there’s agreement on the basic form. … The levee board lawsuits are out. And there’s silence on the parish lawsuits.”

Though both oil and gas lobbyists and the parish government officials agree in principle, the parties continued to tinker with the language throughout the night. But the bottom line is that the wording defines who can file lawsuits involving coastal claims.

“Specifically, the flood authority would not have that authority,” said Jimmy Faircloth, the Pineville lawyer who once served as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s executive counsel and was involved in the negotiations that took place throughout the day in the State Capitol.

He added the drafters were very careful not to include any language that would influence the authority parishes have to file similar lawsuits.

In 2013, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East, filed a lawsuit seeking remuneration for the unrepaired damage caused over the years by energy companies when they drilled and produced oil and natural gas in the state’s coastal region.

The environmental damage diminished the wetlands, which causes storm surges from hurricanes to have a far more devastating impact on population centers.

The energy industry and the Jindal administration oppose the lawsuits. Several bills have been forwarded that would sidetrack the levee board’s lawsuits as well as the litigation filed by the parishes.

The attacks on the parish lawsuits have failed, so far, because of opposition by parish-level elected officials.

The wording changes to SB469 focuses on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East by defining the governmental entities that could bring legal claims related to the use of the coastal zones to only agencies with a Coastal Zone Management Plan.

That would be the state, the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, the attorney general, parish government with coastal management plan and the local district attorney for parishes without a plan, Faircloth said.

The legislation wouldn’t automatically negate the levee board’s lawsuit but it would provide the legal basis would for someone to pursue a dismissal.

Faircloth said they used “very surgical language” to ensure that the parish authority to file a lawsuit was not impacted.

Faircloth said he is not sure whether the coastal parish governments agree with the amendments. “We did show their representatives this language and I am satisfied that they are satisfied that this doesn’t impact their litigation,” Faircloth said.

Jefferson Parish President John Young, who has led the opposition to bills aimed at the local government suits as head of Parishes Against Coastal Erosion, said a representative of the parish had been meeting with lawmakers this week to try to work out a compromise that would “protect local autonomy” to enforce the Coastal Management Plan.

Young said he not seen the final draft yet, but that the wording he had seen, so far, did not yet provide the protections he wants.

Jeff Adelson of The New Orleans Advocate contributed to this report.