NEW ORLEANS — Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a bill Friday aimed at killing a Louisiana levee board’s environmental lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies, despite warnings from some legal experts that it could also affect state and local government litigation over the 2010 BP oil spill.
Jindal announced the signing in a midday news release. His office also released an analysis from his executive counsel, Thomas Enright, detailing the reasons why the administration believes the bill does not endanger BP litigation.
The lawsuit, filed last summer by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, is pending in federal court. It says drilling and dredging by oil, gas and pipeline companies are partially to blame for the degradation of coastal wetlands that serve as a natural hurricane buffer for New Orleans.
Fixing the problem, the suit’s backers say, will cost billions of dollars the state doesn’t have.
Jindal, oil industry executives and their allies in the Legislature decried the suit as a misguided attack on a valuable industry and an action that undermined the state’s coastal restoration efforts. The bill, SB 469 by Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, was designed to retroactively scuttle the lawsuit by excluding the flood protection authority from the agencies that can pursue such litigation.
What happens next was not immediately clear. Opponents have said Allain’s bill will likely be challenged in court.
“For his own agenda, Governor Jindal has now put over 1 million people, their lives, and their property at risk,” Gladstone Jones, lead attorney for the SLFPA-E suit, said in an emailed statement. “Further, he may very well have cost those same people and their communities billions of dollars. We now move to the judicial branch where we will sort this out.”
Jones did not immediately respond to a question of how much his law firm will be owed if the suit is indeed killed. The flood authority’s contract with Jones’ firm contained a so-called “poison pill” requiring the authority to pay the lawyers for their time and expenses if the board ends the suit. Supporters of the suit said that provision was needed to prevent political meddling in the case.
Among those celebrating the signing of the bill was the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
“This law will help restore order and coordination to Louisiana’s approach on how best to tackle our coastal challenge,” said a LABI news release.
Jindal had been expected to sign the bill Monday. He delayed after Attorney General Buddy Caldwell asked for time to review it. Caldwell later urged a veto, saying the bill was too broadly written.
Last weekend, opponents began circulating an analysis by Robert R.M. Verchick, a former policy administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency in the administration of President Barack Obama and now a professor at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. The analysis says Allain’s bill threatens claims the state and various local, coastal Louisiana governments have made against BP under the federal Oil Pollution Act.
Enright argued that the Oil Pollution Act itself makes the party responsible for an oil discharge liable for removal and damage costs. Because federal law pre-empts state law, Enright wrote, the state and local government lawsuits would not be affected by Allain’s bill.
Among other arguments, Enright added that Allain’s bill relates to activity within the state’s coastal zone, while the BP oil spill took place 50 miles off the coast, well outside the state coastal zone.
Verchick’s analysis said the fact that oil entered the coastal zone, requiring containment and cleanup activity in the zone, means Allain’s bill could affect BP claims.
Verchick acknowledged the argument that federal law pre-empts state law. However, he said there are questions about whether the pre-emption would trump a state law that limits which government agencies can pursue an action.
Enright pointed to language in the OPA that defines claimants as “any person or government.”