The choice facing Louisiana lawmakers over so-called “legacy lawsuits” against oil-and-gas drillers isn’t nearly as complicated it sounds. Between now and the end of their session next month, legislators in Baton Rouge still have a chance to do the right thing. They can protect the rights of property owners — everyday folks like you and me — to force oil and gas companies to pay the mounting clean-up costs for the toxic mess they’ve left behind after the last well is capped. Or they can let Big Oil renege on its legal obligation to make good on any environmental damage to the land that it leases. To say that the deck is stacked in favor of the oil giants and their campaign-cash-addled political allies would be an understatement, to say the least! At last count there is a small army of over 50 oil and gas lobbyists reportedly working this issue in Baton Rouge.
But when the dust finally settles in early June, there’s an increasing chance that citizens in the Bayou State may emerge with their right to sue Big Oil over its toxic legacy preserved altogether — or at least get a bill that’s not as bad as the first one that emerged. Last month, I told you about this worst-case scenario— a bill wending its way through Baton Rouge sponsored by state representative Neil Abramson, a lawmaker so deep in the back pocket of the energy companies that they call him “Mr. Oil.” That’s because when he’s not writing bad laws, “Mr. Oil” collects a paycheck from a law firm, Liskow & Lewis, that makes its money fighting on the side of the oil giants, including BP.
So you’ll be shocked, shocked to learn that Abramson’s bill would make it much easier for the industry to hold onto the billions of dollars it should be obligated to pay to landowners whose property they’ve been mucking up for decades. Property owners would lose their right to take Big Oil to court right away; instead these “legacy” (a term made up by the Big Oil PR machine, by the way) claims would head first to the bureaucrats at state Department of Natural Resources. And in Louisiana, DNR has its own toxic legacy — as a dumping ground for industry officials in a revolving door between government and Big Oil that typically leaves the taxpayer outside in the cold. If Abramson’s bill becomes law, Louisianans who’ve seen oil companies foul up their land and their groundwater with environmental hazards such as lead, benzene and radioactive radium-226 would now have to seek justice from a bureaucracy where the deck is stacked against them. I can’t wait to see how Mr. Abramson explains his double-dealing to his city-dwelling constituents when there is not an oil well within miles of his district. Already folks uptown are talking about an “Anybody But Abramson” campaign for the next election.
But there is new hope. Legal Newsline is reporting that while Abramson’s bill has passed the state House, the legislation is currently bottled up in the Senate. Indeed, its big-money backers are furious that Senate President John Alario, who switched to the GOP in 2010, is balking at assigning the Abramson bill to a committee, even with less than four weeks to go in the 2012 session. And they’re fretting that when he does, it may not go to their preferred committee, which is Judiciary A. It’s not clear what the deal is. It’s possible that Alario prefers a rival piece of legislation sponsored by Republican Senator Brett Allain, which isn’t quite as bad as the Abramson bill; it would allow some 250 lawsuits now in the pipeline to go forward. More likely, Alario and other lawmakers are looking at a compromise solution.
Let me be clear: A compromise solution is a bad solution. I’ve been dealing with this baloney ever since my first big environmental case in Mississippi two decades ago, when we established an important legal precedent for property owners whose land had been poisoned by radioactive waste from oil-field residue; there, the oil companies successfully drove us out of Mississippi by using the same tactic of moving such cases out of the court system. Now, history is trying to repeat itself in the Bayou State.
We can’t allow that to happen. The best thing that Louisiana lawmakers could do on “legacy lawsuits” is…absolutely nothing. Oil-and-gas drillers made a promise when they leased these properties decades ago they when it was time to cap the last well, they would leave the land as pristine as they found it. Now, billions of dollars in profits later, they want to welsh on the deal, and they want their cronies in the statehouse to help them get away with it. Lawmakers have less than a month to decide whether to legalize such brazen immorality.
For a valuable resource on this issue, please follow the website http://louisianatruth.org/
Read the recent report in Legal Newsline about the uncertain fate of the “legacy lawsuit” legislation: http://www.legalnewsline.com/news/236062-legacy-lawsuits-bill-being-held-hostage-supporter-says
Read my April 19 post about Rep. Abramson’s toxic ties to Big Oil: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/louisiana-lawmakers-financial-ties-to-oil-industry-expose-stunning-conflict-of-interest-in-legacy-lawsuit-battle
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