Local lawmaker influencing legacy debate

04 28, 2012 by Houma Courier

By advancing legislation that addresses contaminated oilfields, a freshman lawmaker from St. Mary Parish finds himself at the epicenter of one of the Legislature’s most contentious issue this session.

Sen. Bret Allain, who represents the northern portions of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, is attempting to forge a compromise on legacy litigation. He said he wants to do the “right thing.”

“People are coming at me from all directions already,” Allain said. “And I don’t care about the politic risk. I had a job before being elected, and I’ll have a job after I leave office.”

During last year’s legacy debate, an unidentified party unleashed robocalls in the districts of lawmakers assigned to a key House committee. The calls stirred up voters and prompted them to press “1” to be connected directly to their lawmaker.

Rep. Truck Gisclair, D-Larose, who has a bill this year that would regulate robocalls, said his office was “swamped with hundreds of calls, about 400 to 500 in a three-hour period.”

This year, House Civil Law Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, who has his own proposal to rival Allain’s, said a landowner lobbyist “threatened” him with a “firestorm” if he proceeded with his industry-backed legislation.

Last week, Don Carmouche, an attorney for several landowners, filed a complaint against Abramson with the Ethics Board, stating he had a conflict of interest for previously serving as an attorney in legacy lawsuits.

These lawsuits arise from old — sometimes decades-old — contamination of land by oil and gas drillers. The litigation gets its name because subsequent drillers on contaminated lands “inherit” the liability created by previous, often defunct companies.

As far as policy matters go, it’s complicated. Contaminated lands require mitigation and over the years lawsuits have led to record judgments, which have sometimes, but not always, lead to cleanups.

Moreover, both sides of the debate are loaded with wealthy benefactors to bolster the differing positions. Landowners argue that the current system gives too much leverage to the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, industry argues that trial lawyers are milking the issue to line their pockets.

Environmentalists are also involved in the debate, and they say the state Department of Natural Resources, which now regulates legacy sites, is too generous to industry.

The main questions:

n How should liability be addressed?

n Who should mediate?

n How should the fields be restored?

Allain, R-Franklin, who also represents a small portion of Iberia Parish, said he has the answer in Senate Bill 731, which could be heard by the full Senate in the coming days. It was approved by a 3-2 vote this past week by the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

He said he listened to all sides during recent public hearings to craft a proposal that includes regulatory admission, a pre-trial public hearing and admissibility.

“I’ve heard complaints from all sides, so I must be doing something right,” said Allain, a landowner with interests in drilling rigs.

He said his bill offers relief for many independent oil and gas producers that are trapped in legacy suits involving conditions they did not cause. That’s one of the requirements Gov. Bobby Jindal said he wanted to see in a legacy bill, although he has yet to take sides.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Metairie, said Jindal is stuck in “neutral” on the issue and he should get more involved.

Rather than allowing only the secretary of DNR to approve and guide cleanup plans, Allain’s bill creates a super committee of sorts. The review group would include the DNR secretary, commissioner of agriculture, chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, and the secretaries from the departments of environmental quality, wildlife and fisheries, and health and hospitals.

DNR reportedly has a backlog of 280 such cleanup cases under review that date back more than a decade. It’s one reason why Allain said he chose to partner the department with other agencies.

“It’s just too much power to leave in the hands of one man,” Allain said.

Vic Marcello, Carmouche’s law partner, said the super committee will only complicate an already confusing process that will cost landowners more money to navigate. He described the provision as an “bloated, overloaded procedure.”

The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association has expressed similar concerns. The group’s lobbyists contend Allain’s bill will have to take on some amendments on the Senate floor if he wants the support of industry — and Allain said he’s willing to compromise for the sake of fairness.

“This is a good, honest effort to try and find some common ground to get to a solution,” he said.

The Louisiana Landowners Association and the Louisiana Forestry Association are both backing Allain’s bill because, in part, it “expressly authorizes landowners the right to challenge a department-approved plan in discovery and at trial.”

Louisiana Farm Bureau is supporting the legislation, too, because it allows “farmers and landowners to have their property returned to pre-drilling conditions, while drillers and oil companies would not be held liable for pollution issues they did not have a direct hand in creating.”

Allain said that’s an important element of his plan.

“The bill allows (oil companies) to do an omission of regulatory responsibility, without admitting private damage, provides for public hearings at (DNR) upon their admission and makes the process of the public hearing admissible in a court of law,” Allain said.

Abramson’s House Bill 618, which is favored by the oil and gas industry, does not include many of these provisions. His legislation also leaves oversight with DNR, rather than the six departments proposed in Allain’s bill.

Abramson’s bill has already passed the House and is now pending referral to a Senate committee.