CHALMETTE — As the St. Bernard Parish Council contemplates filing lawsuits against energy companies for alleged damage to fragile wetlands and other areas near drilling sites, the president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association says any such litigation is simply a "money grab."
Don Briggs, president of the association, told the Louisiana Record that the potential lawsuits were “frivolous” and “money grabs against the very industry that drives the economy in these coastal parishes.” He also insisted that the industry has followed all rules governing oil exploration, drilling and transportation.
"The oil and gas industry of Louisiana has followed each and every law put forth by the state of Louisiana and the Corps of Engineers concerning permitting, drilling and dredging in this region of the state,” Briggs said. “To retroactively sue an industry that has followed the law is downright absurd.”
Briggs says legal action against the industry also removes the ability for landowners to capitalize on leasing and selling to the industry.
Parish officials have long talked about seeking compensation for damages caused by oil industry canals that were built through fragile wetlands. Officials also say they want the industry to remove toxic waste that might have been placed in unlined pits near drilling operations, or to compensate the parishes for the damages.
St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis recently came under fire for signing a contract on behalf of the parish with Talbot, Carmouche and Marchello, a Baton Rouge law firm whose partners made the largest possible contributions to his election campaign, $5,000 each.
“The Carmouche law firm is the firm that was selected by the previous council to represent St. Bernard in this matter,” Kerri Callais, chair of the St Bernard Council, recently
told the Louisiana Record.
She said that the current council is still considering options regarding moving forward with a suit and who will represent St. Bernard Parish if that is the case.
“Repairing and recouping for damages done to our wetlands is crucial, and so is the economic support that the oil industry provides,” Callais said. “We will be gathering information over the next few weeks to make the best decision possible for St. Bernard.”
The oil industry doesn't think it has any damages to compensate parishes for, Briggs said.
“These are alleged damages," he said. "So to speak to damages and compensations is a bit early in the process."
Drilling for oil in Louisiana is a long-running industry, which started in 1901, Briggs said. For more than a century, the oil and gas industry has been producing oil and natural gas in the state, and for decades the industry has been working in the coastal areas.
The industry is authorized by state permits to operate under specific regulations, Briggs said. There have been glitches over the years, he said, but any conditions of those permits that were not met were rectified.
“Any that haven’t through the years have received the necessary fines,” Briggs said. “Damages were repaired and remediated.”
St. Bernard Parish along with each of the coastal parishes greatly benefits from the gas and oil industry, directly and indirectly, Briggs said. Directly, they receive tax revenues and jobs. Indirectly, the industry brings jobs to other local businesses, including hotels, restaurants, car dealerships and schools.
“It is safe to say that the oil and gas industry is the main driver of the coastal parish economies,” Briggs said.
Briggs warns coastal parishes that the oil industry now has many more options and will move to other areas if local officials make it too hard to do business. Many other states have oil and gas resources, so it is not as attractive for the industry to drill in coastal Louisiana where the legal climate is not suitable for business.
“When these suits get filed, oil and gas is less likely to want to do business in these areas,” Briggs said. “Why drill and follow the law when you know you will only get sued down the road?”