ENVIRONMENT
05/19/2010 03:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Big Oil Trade Group Defends Move To Punish Tulane For Environmental Law Clinic

UPDATE 5/20 8:30 AM: Louisiana Chemical Association president Dan Borne replied via email to questions from HuffPost. He said that in the wake of the Louisiana legislature's decision to defer a bill that would strip funds from Tulane University if its environmental law clinic sues a government agency or business, the chemical and oil trade group is "assessing our options," explaining that the legislature does not adjourn until June 21st.

Asked whether there are any cases brought by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic that he approves of, he replied:

We are focusing on cases that directly impede economic growth in the state.

And Borne demanded to know if Tulane University has contributed any settlement money from cases launched by the clinic to the Tulane Education Fund or other university entities.

UPDATE 4:40 PM: A bill to strip funds from Tulane University if its environmental law clinic sues a government agency or business was killed in committee by the Louisiana State Senate on Wednesday afternoon, dealing a blow to a proposal that alarmed environmentalists.

Tulane Environmental Law Clinic director Adam Babich told the Huffington Post that he is glad the bill was deferred, adding that he was disappointed at the amount of misinformation about the clinic's work that was expressed in the Senate hearing. He added that he has sat down several times with the bill's advocate, the Louisiana Chemical Association, an oil and chemical industry trade group, to hear its concerns with no result: "Their fundamental problem is that they don't want our clients to have lawyers."

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EARLIER: In the latest chapter of a long-running battle in Louisiana, a trade group which represents oil and chemical companies has teamed up with some state lawmakers to try to punish Tulane University for the actions of the school's environmental law clinic.

The Louisiana Chemical Association and Louisiana Chemical Industry Alliance -- the members of which include BP Energy, an arm of the oil giant involved in the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill polluting the Gulf of Mexico -- have long attacked the clinic. The clinic's students, in their quest to seek enforcement of environmental laws, have sometimes taken legal action against polluting companies and regulatory agencies. Such clinics provide legal recourse to poor residents of the state in cases of domestic abuse, environmental discrimination and civil rights violations.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Louisiana Senate is debating legislation that would strip state funding from any university with law clinics that sue a government agency or business. In the face of outrage over BP's role in the oil spill, the senator who introduced the bill earlier this year -- Robert Adley -- has recently indicated that he may narrow the scope of the bill to just clinics that sue the state and state businesses.

In a letter sent to its 61 corporate members earlier in May, LCA president Dan Borne wrote:

"This bill is the culmination of years of frustration with Tulane and its support for its environmental law clinic not only on the part of the chemical industry but other business and chamber groups as well. The [association] Board of Directors voted to actively engage the clinic by targeting Tulane itself, which gives cover to its out-of-state, student want-to-be lawyers and their job killing lawsuits."

In addition, Borne said that the association plans to complain about the clinic to Governor Bobby Jindal. The clinic was attacked by former governor Mike Foster after it opposed a company's proposal for a polyvinyl chloride plant in a lower income community in St. James Parish.

On the LCA's Website, the group touts an 8-point plan, which includes as a goal:

Lower legal defense expenses

Make sure people know the harm Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC) has caused. Publicize the effect that lawsuits which are brought by clients represented by TELC have on the economy.

Tulane's president, as well as leading bar associations, have condemned the legislation and the LCA's attacks on the clinic.

Scott Cowen, the university's president called the bill "an embarrassment" and called it a black eye for Louisiana. "The culprits here are those who break the law, not those who enforce it," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Some leading legislators also oppose the bill -- Senator Nick Gautreaux even suggested to the Times-Picayune: "Maybe the attorney general should hire Tulane law students to sue BP. If they can scare the chemical association this bad, then they can scare BP, TransOcean and Halliburton."

The clinic isn't the only one to be under siege from powerful interests -- the New York Times has reported on proposals to cut funding for the University of Maryland's law clinic after students accused one of the state's largest employers, Perdue, of environmental violations and a New Jersey developer's lawsuit against a law school clinic at Rutgers which tried to stop plans for a strip mall in Franklin Township.

A spokesman for BP did not return calls for comment.