Commissioners Court declines request to sue BP

By Kiah Collier
Houston Chronicle

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday refused to approve a request from County Attorney Vince Ryan to sue BP for an estimated $1.6 million in connection with the 2010 oil spill caused by the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The private lawyers Ryan wants to hire to do the job — on a contingency fee basis — already are representing the city of Houston, which decided to sue BP in April for more than $23 million. The sum is larger than the amount the county could seek because the city is arguing the incident resulted in losses to both sales tax and hotel tax revenues after the federal government imposed a drilling moratorium in the Gulf, directly affecting Houston-based companies and curbing business travel to the city.

The county collects only hotel occupancy taxes.

Ryan implored the court, which considered his request in executive session, to approve it, saying the county has nothing to lose and that time is of the essence.

The court, however, didn’t budge, sitting silently after County Judge Ed Emmett asked whether anyone wanted to “make a motion.”

Precinct 1  Commissioner El Franco Lee told Ryan that court members needed more information — and time — to gain a level of “comfort” before authorizing the litigation.

“I’d rather ask the court for a special meeting once that comfort has been achieved than to reverse from what we’re talking about now,” said Lee, later adding that Ryan was “teetering on the edge of not having it at all” when Ryan told him “We’re up against a timeline.”

After the meeting, Emmett expressed skepticism about the real impact the incident had on tax revenues.

“The argument is, ‘Well, hotel occupancy was down’ somehow related to that,” Emmett told reporters. “But other people maintain that that was more to the moratorium that was declared by the federal government than it was to BP, and so, where do you draw the line on these lawsuits? And I think there were a lot of questions.”

Ryan said he plans to gather more information and come back to court.

Asked whether they would consider the issue again, Emmett said “It’s up to court. We’ll see.”