Pro-energy groups stir debate

The oil and gas industry sees the launch of two pro-industry support groups as an effort to shift the public relations scales in favor of a benevolent, economic powerhouse that is under attack by greedy trial lawyers.

On the other side, environmentalists and plaintiff attorneys see the formation of Grow Louisiana Coalition and Change Louisiana as a desperate effort by an industry whose pride has been wounded by a loss of public support.

Both Grow and Change have organized meetings across the state to get their message out about the industry’s importance — 310,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in revenue for the state — and how legacy lawsuits are resulting in less drilling and fewer jobs. Legacy lawsuits seek funds to repair damage that may have been caused decades ago.

Those events included a Grow Louisiana-sponsored energy forum at LSU on Tuesday where Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said the industry has been working to resolve legacy lawsuits for years, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully. Regardless, the number of these lawsuits continues to grow.

“All of a sudden, you pile on the Flood Protection Authority lawsuit, $10 billion-plus. Then you pile on the parish lawsuits,” Briggs said. “And there’s this growing effort to continue suing the oil and gas industry in the state of Louisiana.”

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East and Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes sued dozens of energy companies, claiming their actions helped cause coastal erosion.

Change Louisiana says the number of these types of lawsuits has grown from 106 in 2006 to 342 in 2013.

Briggs said everybody, not just the industry, felt it was time that Louisiana residents — the people who understand the industry’s importance to the state, families and communities — were given a chance to make their voices heard. Those people, who make up more than half the state’s residents, don’t want to sue the oil and gas industry and force investment to leave Louisiana, he said.

Briggs, who was part of a panel discussion at the energy forum, said he expects additional pro-industry groups will form as the movement gains momentum.

Briggs said the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association is not funding Change Louisiana. However, Briggs and his father, LOGA President Don Briggs, are both listed as directors. The group’s address is the same as that listed for the younger Briggs. Change is a 501(c)(4) organization, a designation that means the nonprofit can engage in “substantial lobbying” activities, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Grow Louisiana’s directors are M. Marc Ehrhardt, senior vice president of the Ehrhardt Group, a New Orleans public relations firm, and Malcolm P. Ehrhardt, president of the Ehrhardt Group.

At the Tuesday forum, Marc Ehrhardt said Grow is independent of LOGA and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, although the group has coordinated meetings with those industry associations. Grow is funded by individuals and businesses, and was formed out of a common interest in reminding people about the oil and gas industry’s importance, he said.

J. Michael Veron, whose law firm is among those representing the Flood Protection Authority, said the latest pro-industry groups are of the same ilk as Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse Watch, which he described as “a front organization” for people who don’t want to be held responsible for the damage they cause.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit watchdog organization, CALA groups are industry creations designed to make it look like there is public support to change the law so it becomes more difficult to sue the industry in question for the injuries and illnesses an industry has caused. Tobacco, insurance and chemical companies have contributed millions to these groups, it said.

Oliver Houck, a Tulane University law professor, said legacy lawsuits didn’t mean much to the public or to the industry until plaintiffs began winning large amounts of money. Then the BP disaster came along and changed everything. The oil industry’s image was tarnished the same way that Hurricane Katrina permanently altered the image of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said. The storm revealed the agency as fallible and error-prone, an image that persists today.

The oil industry faces the same issue, Houck said. In 2010, a bill to kill the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic died in large part because the BP disaster was still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Then the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s lawsuit unexpectedly gained momentum. Gov. Bobby Jindal was unable to kill the lawsuit and suffered tremendous blowback because he tried to, Houck said.

Houck said the industry push isn’t about economics as much as pride.

“These people have enjoyed king-of-the-roost status … Now they’re scrambling to get their cred back,” Houck said. “But just like the Corps after Katrina, I don’t think (the oil and gas industry) can.”

The industry may be able to win the legal battle through bills in the state Legislature but not in the public’s mind, Houck said.