Stephanie Grace: Bills aim to short-circuit judicial system

Critics of the lawsuits seeking restitution for the oil and gas industry’s damage to the state’s coast — particularly the suit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East against 97 companies — have focused largely on the message the litigation sends to the state’s most important industry.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, apparently referring to proposals to derail the SLFPAE suit and bring the independent agency more under administration control, said in his opening address to the Legislature that Louisiana needs to have a “fair and predictable legal environment.”

Don Briggs, head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, calls the suit abusive and driven by “greedy trial lawyers,” and warns such efforts “are contributing to the loss of thousands of local jobs.”

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, the oil and gas man who is leading the legislative charge against bringing the industry to court, says the flood protection agency has no legal right to pursue its claims.

But what message would it send if the Legislature passes some or all of the many bills under consideration to stop the suits — not only the one by the SLFPAE but others by several coastal parishes — and curb such actions in the future? What if lawmakers dismantle or neuter agencies that were created to be shielded from politics?

That message would boil down to something like this: The state will go so far to protect the industry that it will short-circuit the legal process, shield it from scrutiny and potential liability, and make sure officials from ostensibly independent agencies leave it alone. That the industry shouldn’t worry about being held accountable.

Even though, contrary to Jindal’s assertion, political interference in the legal and enforcement processes creates a less predictable legal and regulatory environment, not a more stable one.

Even though Briggs, in a deposition, could not name a company that has either left or decided not to come because of the lawsuits. And even though the state actually is in the midst of an energy boom.

Even though a judge has ruled Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell acted properly in approving the SLFPAE suit, which includes a large contingency fee for the lawyers if they prevail and calls for them to be paid for costs incurred if the suit is withdrawn.

And even though industry defenders acknowledge it has caused some of the damage, and everyone knows the state can’t afford the huge price tag to fix it.

By the way, the fact that lawsuit advocates can’t name an exact percentage is an argument for going to court, not against it. Relative responsibility is exactly the sort of thing that the legal system is set up to sort out.

Despite all this, signs so far out of the Legislature indicate that the industry’s advocates are winning the day. Based on early votes in the Senate, the less conservative of the two houses, the levee authority suit may not survive the session. It’s not yet clear whether lawmakers also are willing to torpedo the parish suits and effectively dismantle the independent flood protection authority.

Before they take any more votes, here are a few things they might want to consider: Rather than a witch hunt, the actions by those seeking redress are really just an acknowledgement of the various players’ proper roles. It’s the private sector’s job to minimize costs and maximize profits, including on environmental and regulatory compliance. It’s the state’s job to protect natural resources and act as a balance. When disagreements arise, it’s the courts’ job to get involved.

So what message would lawmakers send if they buckle? Not that Louisiana is open for business, but that it’s here for the taking.

John Barry, who was ousted as flood authority vice president after he spearheaded the lawsuit, testified that, already, “The industry believes it is above the law.”

That may be a little dramatic. Still, if industry officials don’t feel that way now, they may well by the time the Legislature adjourns. As messages go, that one’s downright chilling.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at Read her blog at http://blogs.