‘Legacy suit’ bills sent to Senate

05 18, 2012 by The Advocate

A Louisiana Senate committee Thursday advanced legislation that supporters called a compromise between oil companies and the owners who want their land cleaned up from decades-old drilling activities.

After narrowly setting aside an effort to postpone a vote on the measure, Senate Bill 555 was forwarded, without objection, to the Senate floor by the Committee for Natural Resources.

Later in the day, the same committee met again and extensively revised House Bill 618, which already has passed the House. The changes were based on the agreement.

“Both must pass in order for this compromise to work,” state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle said. The two measures change the complex procedures set in place to clean up sites damaged years ago by energy companies.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said Thursday afternoon that since a compromise was reached, the legislation aimed at making “legacy lawsuits” more predictable should now move swiftly through the process. “We will have something for the governor to sign before the end of the session,” he said.

Highly paid lobbyists and lawyers sat alongside highly ranked Jindal administration staffers as state Sen. Robert Adley presented his heavily amended SB555.

Adley, R-Benton, said the legislation was the best effort to move past often-bitter negotiations.

Landowners generally claimed that oil companies would only clean up the environmental mess when threatened with a lawsuit. The energy industry countered that agreeing to clean up the old damage opened them to unpredictable and sometimes expensive judgments on other issues. The lawsuits stifled exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the state, the industry’s spokesmen claim.

“The bill is designed to get a party to admit responsibility,” Adley said.

HB618 sponsor state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, said he had agreed to the changes to his measure. “I am pleased that a compromise can move forward,” he said.

Jimmy Faircloth, the attorney for some of the state’s largest private landowners, said he hoped the deal settles the issue. He said he hoped that everyone would “give the opportunity for the process to work and play itself out.”

Angelle said the legislation would allow oil companies to take responsibility for clean up from drilling activities left over the decades without having that admission used against them in lawsuits. Landowners also seek recompense for less specific damages, such as loss of the use of land, in the lawsuits.

In order to accelerate cleanup, the compromise outlined in the two bills would allow a party to admit responsibility for environmental damage and clean it to the regulatory standard.

Once the oil company admits responsibility, the Department of Natural Resources would draft a feasible cleanup plan, according to the two bills. Nobody would be allowed to communicate with the state workers while the plan is being put together.

The cleanup would be overseen by the heads of DNR, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the commissioner of agriculture. All their comments would be admissible in court, the legislation states.

Baton Rouge lawyer Victor Marcello testified that the system outlined in the legislation would further delay cleanup. Marcello said the state does not have enough employees and private industry does not have enough contractors to do what is expected to be an immediate flood of cleanup plans.

“You’re going to have a major bottleneck,” Marcello said, “unless you want to staff up.”