The hypocrisy of Big Oil is collapsing, from Baton Rouge to Dallas


There’s been some stunning developments this week in the fight against Big Oil — one of them right here in Louisiana. It was just last year that an epic expose in Harper’s magazine pulled the lid off some of the undue, outsized influence that the oil industry holds here in our Sportsmen’s Paradise, and a key element was the clout that the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and its longtime leader, Don Briggs, has held on Baton Rouge. The result has been laws and regulations stacked heavily against the people who breathe the toxic air and drink the water that’s been dirtied by Big Oil’s pollution.

Last year, there was finally a breakthrough — when the levee board here on the east bank of the Mississippi River sued some 97 major oil and gas company seeking millions of dollars to reverse decades of damage to Louisiana’s wetlands, our first line of defense against killer storms like 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.  It was something almost unheard of here in Louisiana — a government body actually challenging the hegemony of Big Oil — and the industry is melting under the exposure.

Briggs and his Oil and Gas Association claimed that the suit was driving energy companies out of the state, and it even filed a counter-suit against the state attorney general in a complicated effort to block the hiring of attorneys by the levee board, and kill the wetlands cleanup campaign. But the lawsuit also meant that Briggs would be compelled to testify under oath in a deposition and back up his claims.

Briggs was indeed questioned last week in the matter, and it did not go well. Some of the results were reported this week in an article on

A transcript of that deposition, entered into evidence Monday, indicates that Briggs was repeatedly asked what proof he had that the levee authority lawsuit would cause oil and gas companies to abandon the state.

“Do you have any evidence that any oil company considers Louisiana’s legal climate in deciding whether they will drill for oil and gas in Louisiana,” asked attorney Rock Palermo, who represents the levee authority.

“No,” Briggs responded, according to the deposition’s transcript.

“Is it your opinion that oil and gas companies are leaving Louisiana because of the threat of lawsuits?” Palermo asked.

“Yes,” Briggs said.

“Which oil companies have left Louisiana because of lawsuits,” Palermo asked.

“I don’t know,” Briggs answered.

“Do you have any facts or data to support your opinion?” Palermo asked.

“No,” Briggs said. 

Palermo later asked for the name of any oil company that has refused to do business in the state because of the suits.

“I don’t know any,” Briggs said.

Briggs was also asked, “You can’t name a single company that has not drilled because of the lawsuits?”

“No,” Briggs said.

But the story gets more incredible from there. Briggs was supposed to be in court in Baton Rouge on Monday for a major hearing in the case but failed to show up — suddenly claiming health problems as a result of giving that deposition last Thursday! That caused the judge to issue a warrant for Briggs’ arrest if he failed to show up in court today. That in turn triggered a flurry of back and forth involving a couple of doctors until finally the judge, frustrated in his efforts to get to the bottom of heart trouble that was now claimed by Briggs, delayed the hearing until March 10.

Lawyers for the law firm that was hired by the levee board are still suspicious, and understandably so:

Leo Honeycutt, communications director for Caldwell, said it was not the attorney general’s lawyers who pressed the issue of Briggs’ failure to appear.

“Judge Clark was angered because (1) Briggs filed the suit; (2) Briggs knew this court date was coming and the rest of us showed up; and (3) Briggs was subpoenaed but defied the subpoena because in his deposition last Thursday he discovered he had no evidence, no case, and hadn’t even read his own lawsuit,” Honeycutt said in a statement emailed from the courtroom Tuesday.

He later added:

Honeycutt said Briggs’ failure to show up also is curious because he gave a keynote speech to 300 people at Lafayette’s Petroleum Club only three weeks ago “in which he stated the oil industry was enjoying the best year in 40 years with the greatest potential he had ever seen.” 

“This is bizarre, unbelievable and ridiculous behavior by a man who constantly rails against frivolous lawsuits,” Honeycutt said. “Now, he is one.”

Honeycutt accused Briggs of engaging in stall tactics aimed at delaying the levee authority’s lawsuit “long enough to give (Gov. Bobby) Jindal time to replace enough (authority) board members who’ll stop the suit.”

The hypocrisy of Briggs is alarming, and big news here in Louisiana, but it’s not the Big Oil double-talk that’s making the biggest waves nationally this week. That honor goes to ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who proved that when it comes to the many inconveniences — large and small — of fracking for oil and natural gas, what’s OK for your backyard is definitely not OK for their upscale backyards:

As ExxonMobil’s CEO, it’s Rex Tillerson’s job to promote the hydraulic fracturing enabling the recent oil and gas boom, and fight regulatory oversight. The oil company is the biggest natural gas producer in the U.S., relying on the controversial drilling technology to extract it.

The exception is when Tillerson’s $5 million property value might be harmed. Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that cites fracking’s consequences in order to block the construction of a 160-foot water tower next to his and his wife’s Texas home.

The Wall Street Journal reports the tower would supply water to a nearby fracking site, and the plaintiffs argue the project would cause too much noise and traffic from hauling the water from the tower to the drilling site. The water tower, owned by Cross Timbers Water Supply Corporation, “will sell water to oil and gas explorers for fracing [sic] shale formations leading to traffic with heavy trucks on FM 407, creating a noise nuisance and traffic hazards,” the suit says.

Ironically (and there is almost too much irony to handle here), one of Tillerson’s main missions as head of the world’s richest oil company is to tell the world that fracking is safe, and perfectly normal. In Texas, the ExxonMobil CEO hasn’t even been exposed to the worst that fracking has to offer in terms of toxic air pollution or unsafe tap water. But merely an unsightly water tower is too much for Tillerson to bear.

Suddenly, the stack of lies that Big Oil has been peddling for years to the American people are collapsing like the giant wobbly Jenga tower that it’s always been. Their longstanding claims that reasonable environmental protections would destroy their business model have fallen apart, laughably, in a few minutes of questioning under oath. And now Tillerson’s lawsuit proves what so many of us have been saying for a long time — that living near a fracking operation is neither desirable nor safe. America is finally waking up to our oil emperors’ new clothes…there is nothing there. 

Read more about oil and gas lobbyist Don Briggs and his anxiety-provoking deposition:

To learn more about how Don Briggs avoided arrest at today’s court hearing, please read:

For the scoop on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson protesting fracking, check out:

Read the 2013 Harper’s article on oil and gas pollution in “The Dirty South”:

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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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