Oil lawsuit-killing bill advances

A state Senate panel forwarded legislation Thursday that would kill a New Orleans-area levee board’s lawsuit against the oil and gas industry.

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources approved the heavily amended Senate Bill 469 without objection, sending the measure to a vote by the full Senate as early as next week. Opponents complain that wholesale changes were dropped on them at the last minute.

SB469 would allow only government agencies with a Coastal Zone Management Plan to bring legal claims involving allegations in coastal areas.

The move would undermine lawsuits Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East filed last year against 97 oil and gas companies claiming environmental damage to the marshes. SLFPA-E, pronounced “Slip-Ah” by everyone at the meeting, is not included on a list of agencies allowed to file suit.

“Make no mistake; that is what you’re doing here,” John Barry, the former SLFPA-E commissioner who has become the face of the litigation, told the committee. The lawsuits claim that energy companies dug about 10,000 miles of canals through the wetlands, which led to the erosion of the buffer that mitigated hurricane storm surges.

Jimmy Faircloth, the Alexandria lawyer who was the primary author of the amendments, doesn’t disagree. He added, however, that some party would have to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuits in state district court.

The legislation would not impact similar lawsuits that have been filed by the governments of Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes, Faircloth said. It would not stop other coastal parishes from filing lawsuits.

“This does not apply to the parish lawsuits,” Faircloth said.

State Sen. Bret Allain II, R-Franklin, said the governor’s aides, parish representatives and industry executives have all signed off on the language of the amendment.

He promised that if the wording was substantially changed, he would drop the legislation. “I have given my word,” Allain said.

Allain is a landowner who leases to oil and gas corporations. He was afraid that the levee board’s lawsuit could open the possibility of the landowners being sued.

Allain and Faircloth, who represented large landowners, worked on the language with officials, lawyers and lobbyists during daylong meetings. The work finished late Wednesday.

Many of the opponents complained that the sweeping change to the legislation was sprung at the last minute.

“I read this last night online,” said Kathy Wascom, legislative liaison for Louisiana Environmental Action Network, called LEAN. “There’s an enormous amount of cynicism toward government out there, and it just increases when you have to face issues like this.”

Committee Chairman Gerald Long, R-Winfield, interrupted, “This is step one in the process.”

Wendell Lindsay, Jr., vice president of Louisiana Common Cause, asked the committee to give the public a week to read through the changes and consider their responses.

Gladstone Jones, one of the New Orleans lawyers representing the levee board, said the short window was planned to keep New Orleans-area residents from traveling to Baton Rouge to voice their opposition. He received a copy of the amendment at 6:38 p.m. Wednesday, about 18 hours before he began his testimony.

“The protection of New Orleans will not happen without the SLEPA suits,” Jones said, enunciating every word slowly. “Are you prepared to say to the people that ‘We gave you the right to sue everybody but oil companies’?”