Louisiana awaits 2015 to undo the damage caused by Big Oil

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Sometimes it’s a struggle to find the kernel of good news amid the morass that is our corrupted political system, especially in my home state of Louisiana. Earlier this year, I told you about the big reactionary push in Baton Rouge, by the oil giants against the state’s up-and-coming environmental movement. The Republican pro-business majority, with control of the legislature and with a friend in the governor’s mansion in Bobby Jindal, wants to severely limit the right of property owners to sue for clean-up costs and damages when their land has been polluted by Big Oil. In addition, conservative lawmakers want to prevent other victims of hazardous-waste dumping from suing for punitive damages. The crown jewel of their agenda is finding the means, legislatively, to block the groundbreaking lawsuit by a New Orleans-based levee board that would force some 97 oil and gas companies to pay to restore the critical wetlands that they have trashed for decades.

In 2014, the deck is stacked favorably for Big Oil, and they are playing out that hand:

The Louisiana House of Representatives Thursday approved legislation restricting so-called “legacy lawsuits” filed against oil and gas companies to get them to clean up oilfield waste pits and restore damaged property or pay damages.

Senate Bill 667, by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, would require courts to presume that environmental cleanup plans recommended by the state Department of Natural Resources are the most feasible solution, unless evidence can be presented in court proving otherwise. The bill was approved, 73-18, and now returns to the Senate for approval of changes made in the House before being forwarded to Gov. Bobby Jindal for his signature.

Proponents of the bill contend it will result in faster cleanups, by allowing energy companies to admit to limited liability involving their actions and request the state Department of Natural Resources to develop a restoration plan. Under the bill, that would halt court proceedings until the cleanup plan is completed.

This is disastrous legislation for the environment. For one thing, the Louisiana DNR — as is the case in most oil-and-gas producing states — is an agency that traditional does the bidding of Big Oil as opposed to aggressively fighting pollution. This gives way too much power to pro-industry bureaucrats. More importantly, the most effective tool in fighting pollution is making sure that polluting has serious consequences. It’s a childishly simple principle, but corporations won’t behave unless the cost of doing bad is a lot more than the cost of doing good. The bills in Baton Rouge turn that principle upside down.

So what’s that kernel of good news? As I mentioned in earlier posts, the Big Oil and Gas lobby and its puppets in the statehouse are racing to get this done in 2014, because they are very much afraid of losing their influence after 2015. In recent months, one of the state’s most revered and trusted leaders — retired Gen. Russel Honore, the champion of post-Katrina reconstruction — has criss-crossed Louisiana with his so-called “Green Army,” drumming up support to make environmental protection the No. 1 issue in next year’s race for the governor’s mansion and other key offices. After the twin destruction of Katrina and BP’s 2010 oil spill, it’s clear that many voters are ready to listen. The levee board’s lawsuit is a small taste of what Big Oil can expect in the future, and they are running scared.

Elections have consequences. The environmental travesty that is now taking place in the state capital is the consequence of a conservative political tide that swept across Louisiana and much of the Sunbelt since the start of this decade — but a backlash is brewing. We can make sure that 2015 also has consequences…the right consequences.

For more information about the Louisiana House approving the “legacy lawsuits” bill, check out: http://www.nola.com/environment/index.ssf/2014/05/house_approves_bill_restrictin.html

For more on Big Oil’s regressive legislative push in Baton Rouge, read my April 26 blog post: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/saving-the-wetlands-the-empire-strikes-back/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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