BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The Louisiana House sided Wednesday with the oil and gas industry in an ongoing dispute with landowners and trial lawyers over how to clean up environmental damage done in drilling years ago.
The proposal by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, would change the legal process for dealing with so-called "legacy lawsuits" that seek millions of dollars in damage claims.
Abramson's bill, approved 82-19, would allow cleanup plans devised by the Department of Natural Resources to be admissible as evidence in a lawsuit for a larger damage claim, a move sought by the oil and gas industry.
Landowners and their lawyers oppose the requirement, saying the industry has too heavy an influence over DNR and could pressure the agency in cleanup estimates that would be reviewed by a judge or jury to determine damages.
Legacy lawsuits, often totaling millions of dollars, are filed by landowners who leased their property to energy companies and claim environmental damage from the drilling, such as contamination of ground water resources.
The oil and gas industry says the lawsuits are stifling energy exploration in the state, and they accuse trial lawyers of dragging out the suits to maximize profits. Landowners and their attorneys say the oil and gas companies are trying to get a more favorable legal environment that will keep them from paying what they owe for the contamination.
Abramson said his proposal will require companies to start cleaning damaged areas to regulatory standards, while other damages claims can be pursued in the courts.
"The intent is and the purpose is for oil and gas companies that contaminate property to admit liability and to immediately go clean it up," Abramson said. "I think this is good state public policy."
Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, an opponent of the bill, said the measure would limit a judge's discretion to rule on evidence that should be admitted in a trial. He also questioned whether natural resources employees would be repeatedly dragged into court, taking them away from other tasks.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has taken no position in the ongoing fight, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter has suggested the governor isn't doing enough to resolve the issue.
"I urge Governor Jindal: Please support this solution and call on your Senate leadership to pass the Abramson bill there. Don't allow them to do the trial lawyers' dirty work by running out the session clock or, worse yet, by passing other provisions that actually expand the lawsuit bonanza," Vitter said in a statement.
Abramson has been slapped with an ethics complaint by an attorney representing landowners suing the energy firms, alleging a conflict of interest because Abramson's law firm represents oil and gas companies.
The New Orleans lawmaker has called the allegations absurd, saying it was an attempt to intimidate him and get him to scrap his legislation. And several legislators, including Edwards, sided with Abramson on Wednesday, equating the ethics complaint to a threat.
"While I oppose the bill, I do not oppose Rep. Abramson," Edwards said. "I don't think Neil Abramson did anything improper."
He added, "It will be a sad day in the people's House if we're prohibited from bringing legislation about those things we know most about."