LAFAYETTE – The 15th Judicial District Attorney Keith Stutes recently filed a lawsuit seeking damages from a variety of oil and gas companies, blaming them for the environmental contamination and coastal erosion created by decades of drilling and production in Vermilion Parish.
Stutes' lawsuit mimics several others that have been filed on behalf of parish governments throughout the state seeking compensation for alleged damage to land as a result of oil exploration activities sometimes dating back several decades before any regulations were in place regarding such activities.
The 15th Judicial District covers Vermilion, Lafayette and Acadia parishes, which is a region intimately linked to the success of oil and gas operators. Similar lawsuits have been filed by Plaquemines, Cameron and Jefferson parishes.
“While we all recognize the tremendous impact oil and gas activities have had on our local economy, every person who has ever fished, hunted and enjoyed the natural beauty of Vermilion Parish is aware of the environmental issues caused by oil and gas activities,” Stutes said in a statement.
Stutes' decision garnered considerable criticism from oil and gas industry officials when he submitted the lawsuit. They disputed how much oil and gas companies should be blamed for coastal erosion and framed the lawsuits as an attack by environmental activists and trial lawyers.
"What's shameful is that you have a DA in Lafayette and a local law firm filing a lawsuit against an industry that is on its knees right now and can barely keep the doors open," Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs told the Acadiana Advocate.
The lawsuit names 49 oil and gas companies as defendants and seeks the restoration of the coast and its surrounding areas. Although there were initial mentions of a settlement, Briggs made it clear that settlements were not an option.
"Industry is not in any settlement talk at all, period," Briggs said in the Acadiana Advocate. "There are no talks, and there is no thought of having any talks about having a settlement."
In a written statement, Stutes defended his decision to pursue the lawsuit, explaining that if it succeeds, it could lead to new employment opportunities related to cleanup and restoration work in the parish.
"Restoring our coast and environment is an important economic impetus for our citizens,” he said. “Moreover, as district attorney, it is my fiduciary responsibility to see to it this law is enforced uniformly and the law is made to work with no show of favoritism. The message is simple: Clean up the mess that you have made and restore our coast to its original condition.”
“These trial lawyers’ insatiable appetite for cash perpetuates their misguided thought process, leading them to once again ignore the fact that the oil and gas industry is already heavily regulated by the Office of Conservation and the Department of Natural Resources,” Briggs said in the op-ed.
Briggs further argued that District Stutes and Broussard & David law firm have put Vermilion Parish down a dangerous path that will lead to economic turmoil.
“The message they sent is simple: extort millions and drive out industry,” Briggs said. “This litigation is fueled by the same trial lawyers who have been extorting millions of dollars from the oil and gas industry for years.”
Where Stutes argues that the coastal erosion creates problems with the economy, and it is necessary to repair it to better the job market in the region, Briggs finds the lawsuit as the possible reason for economic struggle.
“There is already a rigorous regulatory process in place to ensure that each coastal use permit in the state is in compliance,” Briggs said. “Any concerns can be addressed through this process without falling into the trap these trial lawyers have set, which will lead to excessive delays and exorbitant legal costs associated with litigation for the oil companies. Ignoring the administrative regulatory process and immediately dragging this into the court room removes any appearance of legitimacy associated with their motives.”