For years, the powerful oil and gas industry in Louisiana has dominated life in this state — its economy and especially its politics. But after a remarkable turn of events over the last year, Big Oil and Gas here in my home state has become more like a cornered, wounded beast of prey — and so now the industry is thrashing out wildly, clawing in every direction. And it’s kind of a pathetic sight to behold.
First, let’s review how we got this point. For years, the energy companies have treated the natural splendor of Louisiana as their own private dominion — carving up or tearing down the wetlands that not only are the source of its ecological diversity, but the natural wall of defense against tropical storms like Hurricane Katrina. Then last year, a breakthrough — as the levee board charged with protecting the east bank of the Mississippi, which includes New Orleans, filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against 97 major oil and gas companies. The suit seeks millions to protect the wetlands and restore them to their original state.
Since then, the once-powerful Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA) and the politicians who blindly support it, right on up to Gov. Bobby Jindal, have been reeling — and scrambling to squelch the lawsuit by any means necessary. But since LOGA’s longtime influential leader Don Briggs was called to give a deposition in a lawsuit that LOGA has filed seeking to compel the state attorney general to intervene and nullify the levee board’s hiring of legal counsel, things have not gone well for Big Oil.
Briggs was forced to admit under oath that he wasn’t aware of a single oil or gas company that had been forced to leave Louisiana because of the levee board’s action, even though that is exactly what the LOGA lawsuit alleges. Their argument also suffered a blow this week when a judge in Baton Rouge ruled their was nothing illegal or unconstitutional about the Louisiana AG approved the suit.
Meanwhile, a state lawmaker is trying to pick up the ball from Briggs in Baton Rouge:
[S]tate Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, who has strong ties and tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry will be among those leading the drive in the Louisiana Legislature when it convenes on Monday.
Adley has proposed a series of bills that would kill the East Bank Levee Authority’s lawsuit against the oil and gas companies.
One bill would prevent any governmental subdivision of the state — such as a levee board — from bringing such a lawsuit. Only the state would be able to file such a suit. And if adopted, the law would be retroactive.
Another bill would declare null, void and unenforceable the kind of agreement the levee authority has with its private attorneys in the lawsuit. That would also be retroactive.
Eyewitness News legal analyst Donald “Chick” Foret says all of this is clearly aimed at the levee authority’s lawsuit. “Under these proposed bills, the action of the levee authority is gutted,” he says. “It says you can’t file your own lawsuit.”
This is an outrageous attempt by politicians trying to subvert the legal process in Louisiana, to prevent the citizenry from seeking environmental justice for abuses that have been committed by Big Oil. The fundamental premise of tort law is that the cost of doing bad must be more than the cost of doing good, and the levee board lawsuit seeks to do that on behalf of those who drink Louisiana’s water and breathe its air.
But I’ve learned over the weekend that these dangerous legislative proposals are just the tip of the iceberg — that Big Oil has also set up a shadowy website and campaign that’s called Give ‘Em The Boot — trying to claim that the real problem in Louisiana isn’t the billion-dollar companies that created “Cancer Alley” but the trial lawyers trying to win justice for the everyday citizens who live here. It’s the same claptrap that you and I have been hearing for years — that lawsuits against corporate polluters are killing the oil and gas industry, even as the reality is that the U.S. is currently at a 30-year-high for fossil-fuel production.
They like to blame the trial lawyers — people like me — because they don’t want you to see the real face of environmental law in the state, the plaintiffs whose property was dumped on for decades or the workers who were exposed to radiation and other poisons without protective gear. They don’t want you to think about people like Milton Vercher, a man who worked amid radioactive scale and dust for two decades in Harvey. La., on the West Bank. for a major Exxon contractor called ITCO, and whose body was wracked with leukemia by the time we sued on behalf of the owners of the property. The jury in that case came back with a remarkable $1 billion verdict against Exxon — later reduced on appeal — not because they wanted to make trial lawyers rich, but because they wanted to hit the oil company in the wallet, to make sure it never again poisoned citizens like Milton, who died a couple of years ago.
That is the reality of what is at stake right now, and why Big Oil is lashing out against trial lawyers — because they want to return to the day when they could dump on Louisiana and trample our wetlands with no consequences. But that train has left the station, and the people are not turning back.
Check out my Feb. 27 blog post about Don Briggs’ deposition and the Oil and Gas Board’s crumbling efforts to take on the levee board from the East Bank: https://www.stuarthsmith.com/the-hypocrisy-of-big-oil-is-collapsing-from-baton-rouge-to-dallas/
Read more about efforts in Baton Rouge to kill the levee board’s lawsuit against Big Oil: http://www.wwltv.com/news/levee-authority-lawsuit-249090161.html
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