BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The oil and gas industry won a significant victory Friday in the Louisiana Legislature, receiving final passage of a bill that seeks to kill a lawsuit filed by a New Orleans area levee board against nearly 100 oil and gas companies.
The lawsuit by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East alleges the companies' drilling activities damaged Louisiana's coast and vulnerable wetlands.
Senators voted 25-11 for the measure by Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, that is aimed at retroactively voiding the lawsuit.
The vote sent Allain's bill to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is expected to sign it into law. The Republican governor opposed the lawsuit and pushed for the measure's passage.
Lawsuit supporters say the industry hasn't been held sufficiently accountable for coastal damage done by dredging for canals and pipelines. Critics call the lawsuit an attack on a valuable state industry and a windfall for trial lawyers who stand to make millions, and they say the levee board had no authority to file it.
Allain's bill will define which governmental entities can bring legal claims about management of Louisiana's coastal zones to entities designated in the Coastal Zone Management Act. Levee boards aren't on the list.
That will offer a legal argument to have the levee board's lawsuit thrown out. The bill specifies that its provisions "shall be applicable to all claims existing or actions pending."
"I think this clarifies the Legislature's stand on this issue," Allain said, repeating his argument that the board had no right to file the lawsuit.
"You don't think that changing the law midstream is unfair?" said Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, who voted against the bill.
Under questioning from senators, Allain said the measure won't affect similar environmental damages lawsuits filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes against oil and gas companies.
Lawmakers on both sides don't expect Jindal's signature on the bill to end debate, assuming that a judge will be asked to decide the constitutionality of the retroactive bill.
"This fight is not over. We will see you in court. And we will see you at the next election. Apparently a majority of the legislators believe that the oil and gas industry actually is above the law, which is an interesting concept to embrace in the United States," John Barry, a former levee board member who was ousted by Jindal for pushing the lawsuit, said in a statement.