Gov. John Bel Edwards | Photo by Marie Constantin
BATON ROUGE – Gov. John Bel Edwards' decision to double down on coastal litigation against the oil and gas industry is an attempt to distract from his own questionable actions in existing cases, according to a recent industry statement.
"The governor’s comments today are an obvious attempt to deflect from the very serious conflict of interest issues that have been raised by the media in recent weeks," said a joint statement issued Sept. 21 by the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA) and Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA). "Major newspapers in Louisiana have published a slew of editorials and columns calling on Governor Edwards to make good on his ethics pledge and stop the system of good ol’ boy government that seems to be flourishing under his administration. Many citizens have raised concerns about cronyism and political patronage as well."
Louisiana Oil and Gas Association Don Briggs
The joint statement came the same day Edwards announced his office's intent to file more litigation against the oil and gas industry. Edwards reportedly is sending letters to coastal parishes recommending they file litigation against the oil and gas industry in the next 30 days or expect the state to do it for them. Edwards claimed oil and gas industry representatives are not interested in negotiating, according to the same reports.
Edwards currently is enduring a roiling controversy over his attempts to insert campaign donors as attorneys into 39 existing coastal damage lawsuits against the oil and gas industry filed by Plaquemines, Jefferson, and Cameron parishes. Melissa Landry, executive director of the nonpartisan Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LAWW), outlined much of the background in that controversy during a recent interview on The Red Bayou Show.
The proposal would have allowed Edwards' chosen attorneys to charge rates of up to $225 an hour and, in the event of a settlement or an award, to negotiate their own fees in that case, Landry said during that interview.
"The governor's office and the Department of Natural Resources quietly – very quietly – filed some court records to enroll the governor's, basically his private legal team, in the Jefferson Parish lawsuit on behalf of the state," Landry said. "And as the details were brought to light about this cozy arrangement between Gov. Edwards and, basically, his top campaign supporters, it's been deeply troubling to LLAW and a number of other groups and individuals as well."
That effort has been opposed by the office of state Attorney General Jeff Landry, which is constitutionally required to consider, reject or approve such contracts.
Edwards' office has not responded to Louisiana Record requests for comment in this matter.
Lobbyists for the attorneys who were picked by Edwards to intervene in the coastal litigation team held a $5,000-per-person fundraiser for the governor earlier this month. LOGA President Don Briggs, in a story published in the Louisiana Record, accused the state's trial bar of making specious cause-and-effect arguments when it links the energy industry to climate change, Hurricane Katrina and deadly floods in the Baton Rouge area last month.
The governor has since backed away from that attempt to insert high-paying donors as attorneys in the existing coastal litigation cases, but his Sept. 23 announcement would involve new litigation against the oil and gas industry.
The Sept. 23 move by the governor seems to be an attempt to get his own hand-picked attorneys into place after all, according to the joint LOGA and LMOGA statement.
"Rather than working to address these issues, it seems the governor is doubling down on this flawed attempt to hire private lawyers to attack Louisiana’s energy industry," the statement said. "That’s alarming, particularly given that the first two lawsuits to proceed to major decisions have been dismissed by federal and state courts."
The additional litigation is otherwise unnecessary, the statement said. "The reality is the administration already has every tool it needs to protect the coast," the statement said. "The State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act provides for an exhaustive set of fines and penalties that can be levied by the Department of Natural Resources to enforce the terms of state-issued permits. But issuing fines and penalties for alleged violations, as the department is required to do by state law, doesn’t produce billions in legal fees."
The statement said the lawsuit actually hinder coastal protection efforts.
"Whatever their outcome, these lawsuits are not a funding mechanism for state or local government budgets and they will not help protect the coast," the statement said. "On the contrary, they divert critical time and resources away from the industry’s support of Louisiana’s coastal restoration efforts, which have been underway for decades.
The industry statement suggested cooperation is the route to coastal protection.
"Louisiana’s oil and natural gas industry is the largest private investor in our state’s coast," the statement said. "These efforts would be better supported and strengthened through collaboration, not litigation."