Rejecting the advice of his own attorney general and dozens of legal scholars, Louisiana governor and potential presidential contender Bobby Jindal effectively blocked a New Orleans-area levee board from suing oil and gas companies for allegedly destroying the state's coasts – and in so doing, may have also derailed state and local claims against BP for damages and tax revenue lost following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
"This bill will help stop frivolous lawsuits and create a more fair and predictable legal environment, and I am proud to sign it into law," the Republican Jindal declared in a statement Friday. "It further improves Louisiana's legal environment by reducing unnecessary claims that burden businesses so that we can bring even more jobs to our state."
Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, was also quoted in the statement distributed by the governor's office, hailing the measure as a "huge victory for the oil and gas industry."
The law, SB 469, essentially bars a levee district in New Orleans' East Bank – the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, or SLFPA-E – from pressing forward in its lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies, which it blames for exposing New Orleans to catastrophic damage from hurricanes Rita and Katrina by cutting thousands of miles of pipes and canals through sensitive barrier islands and wetlands that otherwise would have protected the coastal city.
The lawsuit, filed last summer, sought to force energy companies to restore the wetlands, fill in the canals, and pay for past damages.
"We are looking to the industry to fix the part of the problem that they created," SLFPA-E vice president John Barry told the Times-Picayune last year. "We're not asking them to fix everything. We only want them to address the part of the problem that they created."
SB 469 upends that effort by stipulating only certain limited groups may bring lawsuits against companies for their activities along the coast, such as oil exploration. Its backers in the state legislature, Sens. Bret Allain and Robert Adley, asserted the measure will help avoid "enriching lawyers and certain individuals" through "frivolous lawsuits."
Zygmunt Plater, a professor at Boston College Law who specializes in environmental law, disagrees.
"Clearly they're jumping at the snap of the fingers of the [Louisiana] Oil and Gas Association," he says. "LOGA is powerful"
Oil and gas donations, in fact, easily make up the largest chunk of campaign donations to Jindal, Allain and Adley, finance records show. And indeed, SB 469 not only halts SLFPA-E's lawsuit, but also potentially undercuts government claims against BP, whose Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing 11 people and spilling 210 million gallons of oil in the worst marine oil spill in history.
"BP has some of the cleverest lawyers in the world. It's altogether likely that this would be a major constraint immunizing a bunch of BP claims," Plater says.
Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell agreed. On Tuesday, he wrote the governor to urge him to veto the measure, arguing that its "very broad and all-encompassing language" made him "very concerned that the bill may have other potential serious unintended consequences." In short: that the state and local groups would be robbed of their right to sue except in extremely limited circumstances.
He wasn't alone in his concerns. More than 20 law professors and a retired New Orleans judge also wrote the governor, calling on him to veto the bill.
Jindal executive counsel, Thomas Enright, though, summarily rejected their arguments.
"We are satisfied that the concerns expressed by your office are the same as those offered by the opponents of the bill during the session and that those concerns were properly considered and publicly debated at length," he said.
Jindal went ahead and signed the law late Friday morning. SLFPA-E is expected to challenge the measure in court.