House backs ‘legacy lawsuit’ bill; critics say battle just started

04 26, 2012 by The Advocate

The Louisiana House spent more than an hour Wednesday debating legislation that would increase the state Department of Natural Resources’ involvement in what are known as “legacy lawsuits.”

House Bill 618 cleared the House on an 82-19 vote, making it the first in a chain of legacy lawsuit bills to advance from a chamber.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Neil Abramson, said he is open to suggestions on how to resolve disagreements on the proposal.

“I will commit to you this is not the end. It’s either the beginning or the middle,” said Abramson, D-New Orleans.

Abramson made a tweak to the bill to attempt to appease concerns that the state will develop questionable cleanup plans.

The bills are pitting private landowners against the oil and gas industry. The proposals also are leading to bruised feelings.

At issue is how to handle litigation stemming from the contamination of land by oil and gas drilling. The legal activity is referred to as legacy lawsuits because they involve damage caused by energy exploration decades ago. Oil companies blame the lawsuits for diminishing oil and gas activity in Louisiana.

HB618, which is backed by oil companies, would allow oilfield operators to admit responsibility for cleanup without admitting to other allegations. The state would then decide how to clean up the environmental damage.

Proponents of the measure contend it would speed up the remediation of the damage by freeing it from other legal issues that would be litigated in court. Critics contend giving primary jurisdiction to DNR would give oil and gas companies an upper hand in that litigation.

Abramson insisted that he is simply setting a framework for oil and gas companies to admit liability.

“Admit responsibility when you should admit responsibility. Immediately go out and clean up ... It does not in any way affect civil litigation,” he said.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, said the bill would take away some of a court’s discretion.

State Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Crowley, said he does not want his farmers dictated to on what to do with their land by a state agency.

He said the head of DNR is appointed by the governor, which gives him concerns about the agency bending to political manipulation by the oil and gas companies.

“Do you really think your bill is going to make them step up to the plate?” Montoucet asked.

“I hope so,” Abramson said.

State Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, tried to amend the bill to ensure it could not apply retroactively to existing lawsuits.

State Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, accused Morris of trying to gut Abramson’s bill.

Abramson also objected, saying he did not understand the reason for the amendment.

The amendment failed with 13 voting for it and 83 voting against it.

During debate on the bill, references were made to the controversy swirling around it.

In addition to being a legislator, Abramson is an attorney who defends oil and gas companies in legacy lawsuits.

Pineville attorney Jimmy Faircloth, who represents some of the state’s largest private landowners, alerted Abramson that he could be accused of having a conflict of interest. Abramson characterized the advice as intimidation.

Another lawyer said he planned to file an ethics complaint against Abramson.

After HB618 cleared the House, Faircloth said his objection to the legislation is that it would give new authority to DNR’s Office of Conservation to grant exceptions to regulatory standards.

“I have no objection to the process described under the bill. My concern is the bill may allow for the lowering of pollution standards,” he said.