As expected, the Louisiana Senate voted 25-11 on Friday to accept the House amendment to SB 459, which made the prohibition against governmental entities’ ability to seek redress from 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies for the damages inflicted on Louisiana’s erstwhile freshwater marshlands, effectively sealing the fate of efforts by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) to hold the companies accountable for their actions.
The amendment, passed earlier by the House in a 59-39 vote made SB 469 retroactive, which is tantamount to killing the SLFPA-E litigation, prompting Ret. Gen. Russel Honeré to observe, “The flag of the oil companies still flies over the Louisiana Capitol.”
But in passing SB 469, which Gov. Bobby Jindal is almost certain to sign into law, given his backing of the bill, the Louisiana Legislature may have pulled the proverbial rug from under Louisiana coastal city and parish governments, according to a five-page analysis of the bill by Robert R.M. Verchick of the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
Also participating in drafting the report on the potential repercussions of the bill were Zygmunt J.B. Plater, professor, Boston College Law School and former Chairman of the State of Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s Legal Task Force; William Andreen, professor of law, University of Alabama School of Law, and Christine A. Klein, professor and director, LL.M. Program in Environmental & Land Use Law, Levin College of Law, University of Florida.
Among other the bill by Sens. Bret Allain and Robert Adley (who have received $632,000 in contributions from oil and gas interests—$597,950 for Adley and $34,140 for Allain), provides:
- Except as provided in this Subpart [the state coastal zone management law], no state or local governmental entity shall have, nor may pursue, any right or cause of action arising from any activity subject to permitting under R.S. 49:214.21 et seq. [the state coastal zone management law], 33 U.S.C. 1344 [§ 404 dredge or fill permitting under the Clean Water Act][,] or 33 U.S.C. 408 [the Rivers and Harbors Act] in the coastal area as defined by R.S. 49:214.2, or arising from or related to any use as defined by R.S. 49:214.23(13), regardless of the date such use or activity occurred (emphasis theirs).
That provision of the bill would appear to again place the state at odds with federal statutes, specifically the congressional Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) which says, in part:
- Notwithstanding any other provision or rule of law, and subject to the provisions of this Act, each responsible party for a vessel or a facility from which oil is discharged, or which poses the substantial threat of a discharge of oil, into or upon the navigable waters or adjoining shorelines or the exclusive economic zone is liable for the removal costs and damages…
Moreover, federal statute says that the list of recoverable costs and damages includes economic losses and natural resource damages incurred by state and local governments. Damages under the federal statute shall include:
- Damages for injury to, destruction of, loss of, or loss of use of, natural resources, including the reasonable costs of assessing the damage, which shall be recoverable by a United States trustee, a state trustee, an Indian tribe trustee, or a foreign trustee;
- Damages equal to the net loss of taxes, royalties, rents, fees, or net profit shares due to the injury, destruction, or loss of real property, personal property, or natural resources, which shall be recoverable by the Government of the United States, a State, or a political subdivision thereof.
- Damages for net costs of providing increased or additional public services during or after removal activities, including protection from fire, safety, or health hazards, caused by a discharge of oil, which shall be recoverable by a State, or a political subdivision of a State.
So what does all that have to do with local governmental entities?
Simply this: because SB 469 would limit the types of claims that state and local governmental entities may pursue, the report says. This means if BP should raise defenses of claims from the BP spill of 2010 based on SB 469 and even only partially succeed, “the results would needlessly deprive Louisiana and its communities of precious revenue and cause considerable embarrassment of state leaders” because it specifically excludes economic or natural resource damage claims under OPA, according to the report which was signed by Verchick.
Economic damages and damages from the loss of natural resources comprise the very basis of pending claims against BP, Verchick says.
In its OPA suit against BP, for example, Jefferson Parish has claimed that it has suffered, among other things:
- Ecological damage;
- Damage to the quality of life of its citizens;
- Loss of sales tax revenues, use tax revenues, parish tax revenues, inventory tax revenues, hotel and motel tax revenues, severance tax revenues, royalties, rents and fees;
- Increased costs of providing services to the citizens of Jefferson Parish;
- Damage to the natural resources of Jefferson parish;
- Increased costs for the monitoring of the health of its citizens and the treatment of physical and emotional problems related to the oil spill;
- Increased costs for debt service;
- Loss of fees for permits and licenses;
- Loss of fines and forfeitures income;
- Increased administrative costs.
State senators who represent Jefferson Parish who voted for SB 469 in its amended form and the amount of campaign contributions they have received from oil and gas interests (in parentheses) are:
- John Alario, Senate President: $124,400;
- David Heitmeier: $44,300
- Jean-Paul Morrell: $87,800;
- Gary Smith: $87,600.
TOTAL: $344,100 (Ave: $86,000 each).
Alario is a Republican while the other three are each Democrats, which illustrates that the money of big oil can purchases allegiances on each side of the aisle.
House members from Jefferson Parish who voted for the amended bill and their oil and gas contributions (in parentheses) include:
- Bryan Adams: $9,000;
- Robert Billiot: $32,800;
- Jerry Gisclair: $3,750;
- Cameron Henry: $30,000
- Christopher Leopold: $29,800;
- Nick Lorusso: $21,700;
- Julie Stokes: $20,000.
TOTAL: $147,050 (Ave. $21,000 each).
GRAND TOTAL, HOUSE AND SENATE: $491,150 (Ave. $44.650 each).
“Because SB 469 works retroactively, it could undo all of these claims,” Verchick said.
If Jindal signs the bill into law, it would also apply prospectively. “So if, say, one of the supertankers offloading at the state’s offshore oil port caught fire and started pouring oil into Lafourche Parish, or if a major pipeline in Plaquemines Parish ruptured, or an oil rig anywhere in state coastal waters blew up, as BP’s Deepwater Horizon did, then no parish or city that was affected would be able to bring a claim for economic losses, not even if it cost taxpayers millions—or billions—of dollars,” he said.
Louisiana produces nearly 1.25 million barrels of crude oil per day. It hosts the world’s only offshore superport for oil and gas tankers and is crisscrossed by more than 100,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines. “Does Gov. Jindal really want to sign a law that could immunize the oil and gas industry from paying for economic losses caused by any oil spill (however reckless the behavior) in the state’s coastal zone?” Verchick asked in his report.
He said Jindal, in the opening week of hurricane season, should consider the terrible risk the law would impose on fragile communities along the Louisiana coast. “Whatever one thinks about SLFPAE’s lawsuit, such expansive action cannot be justified. It’s like bombing the Gulf of Mexico to catch a single snapper,” he said.
The report said the most significant risk could be the aftermath of future oil spill events that may occur wholly within Louisiana’s coastal zone, including potential ruptures in any of the more than 125,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines in Louisiana or a spill occurring at the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), the largest point of entry for waterborne crude oil entering the U.S., or from a tanker rupture similar to the Exxon Valdez spill.
“We emphasize that this is a significant litigation risk faced by the state and local governments should SB 469 be signed into law,” he said. State and local governments will also have counter-arguments that they can raise, namely that SB 469’s prohibitions will trigger conflict-preemption such that OPA’s damages provisions will take precedence over the prohibitory language of SB 469.
“Implied preemption can also take the form of conflict preemption where complying with both federal law and state law is impossible or where the state law ‘creates an unacceptable “obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”
Arguably, the application of SB 469 to prevent certain state or local governmental entities from pursuing the full panoply of damages available under OPA may present such an obstacle and could be found by a court to be conflict-preempted,” Verchick said.
“These open questions present a significant litigation risk to such governmental entity claims. A court could plausibly interpret SB 469 to dismiss or limit damage claims, now before the court, that the state and its subdivisions have brought against BP. Regardless of how the court ultimately rules, the very existence of these eventualities will devalue the plaintiffs’ settlement posture and perhaps lengthen the time those governmental entities will go without recompense for these categories of economic loss,” the report concluded.
But it isn’t very likely that much thought will be given to the implications cited by Verchick; legislators and Jindal will be far too busy counting the $6 million or so they have received in big oil campaign contributions to give the report anything more than a cursory perusal.
Here is the way the Senate voted on the amended version of SB 469 which kills the SLFPA-E litigation:
Total – 25
Total – 11
Total — 3
As a refresher from our previous post, for a complete list of campaign contributions from oil and gas interests to our 144 current legislators as compiled by Moss Robeson, click here: Copy of Campaign Contributions