BATON ROUGE – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' drive to generate new litigation against the oil and gas industry is a clarion call for the legislature to reassure all industries that the governor's actions don't reflect the state, a business lobby president said during a recent interview.
"This is not who we are," Stephen Waguespack, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry president and former chief of staff to Edwards' predecessor Bobby Jindal, told the Louisiana Record. "This is not the kind of people that we are in Louisiana, this is not the kind of state that we are."
All industries, especially those who operate under a permit from the state, are casting a wary eye on Louisiana after Edwards took some much-questioned steps in existing litigation against the oil and gas industry and announced plans for new lawsuits, Waguespack said. However, there are other branches in state government and businesses that would consider actions, as well, Waguespack said.
"They can expect the legislature to step up and do something about this," he said.
If the legislature fails to do so, the repercussions could be very negative in a state where industry hesitates to invest and lawsuits are filed by governments for profit rather than justice, he said.
"If nothing is done, then this could become the new cash cow in this state," Waguespack said.
In 2013, Waguespack became president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which represents more than 2,200 businesses, after the time he spent with the Jindal administration. The Baton Rouge attorney served Jindal in various roles, including as an appointee to the state board of elementary and secondary education.
Waguespack's recent op-ed piece, "Sue or get out of the way," issued by LABI earlier this week and republished by a number of news outlets, including the Louisiana Record, was highly critical of a Sept. 21 letter the governor's office sent to multiple coastal Louisiana parishes. In that letter, Edwards encouraged the parishes to file their own litigation against the oil and gas industry within 30 days or expect the state to do it for them.
Edwards, whose office has not returned Louisiana Record requests for comment, has claimed oil and gas industry representatives are not interested in negotiating, according to the same reports.
The governor's office backed away from a previous attempt to quietly enroll hand-picked attorneys, most of them donors to Edward's gubernatorial campaign, in 39 existing coastal damage lawsuits against the oil and gas industry.
Waguespack recommended officials in those parishes do three things when they receive the letter from Edwards' office recommending new litigation against the oil and gas industry.
"They should open it, they should read it and then they should put it in the trash can," Waguespack said. "That's my recommendation."
The state legislature, on the other hand, can take more substantial steps to reassure the industry that these actions by the Edwards Administration are not going to be business as usual in Louisiana, Waguespack said.
"There should be oversight hearings looking into whether it was lawful for that letter to be sent and other topics surrounding the controversy, which would send a positive message to businesses that Louisiana isn't on board," he said.
Those steps are necessary to reassure Louisiana businesses who have expressed concern that the targeting of one industry could set a precedent for targeting others.
"If this type of litigation is allowed, then any industry could find themselves on the block," Waguespack said. "Any industry that operates under a permit from the state could be targeted."
However, Waguespack did not recommend any action be taken against Edwards or his administration.
"We need to get at some sensible solutions here," Waguespack said. "I think there are other things that should happen before anything else is very seriously considered."