Editor’s Note: A guest column by our friend Quin Hillyer, who currently hails from parts east of Plaquemines Parish.
Voters in a key Louisiana jurisdiction have just informed rapacious plaintiffs’ lawyers that Bayou State citizens are tired of living in a “judicial hellhole.”
As reported here at the Washington Examiner last Tuesday, Louisiana was just listed as one of the top 5 official “ Judicial Hellholes” in the whole country by the American Tort Reform Association, a business-backed group known for fighting against what it calls “lawsuit abuse.” One of the major examples of absurd lawsuits – but one supposedly to the benefit of, and popular among Louisiana citizens – is a series of court actions by lawyers acting for Louisiana government entities. The suits, sold to the public as a miracle cure for state budget woes, aimed to force “Big Oil” to pay retroactively for coastal erosion that largely wasn’t the oil companies’ fault.
Earlier iterations of such lawsuits suffered ignominious defeats, even at the hands of Obama-appointed judges assumed to be unfriendly to corporate interests. But a number of Louisiana parishes (the state’s equivalent of counties), led publicly, legally and organizationally by coastal Plaquemines Parish, re-filed similar suits, using different legal strategies.
I wrote about the earlier cases for the Baton Rouge Advocate. The suits amount to the court-system version of a shakedown of the nearest and deepest pockets available. Only a small portion of Louisiana’s marshland erosion was ever caused by energy pipelines. Much of it was due to loss of marsh re-sedimentation when the federal government put levees on the Mississippi to discourage flooding. Other causes or culprits were cypress logging, shipping companies, and the voracious, non-native nutria, colloquially known as marsh rats.
Even ignoring the above facts, the pipelines themselves were legal. The state and federal agencies that leased out the pipeline rights never suggested the companies were violating their leases.
Last week, voters in Plaquemines had the chance, by proxy, to weigh in on these lawsuits. In a special-election runoff for parish president, both candidates were conservative Republicans. The major, well-publicized policy difference between them was that incumbent, Amos Cormier III, son of the now-deceased parish president who championed the suits, was supported by the plaintiff lawyers’ interests. Challenger Kirk Lepine publicly opposed the lawsuits.
Voters knew well that if Lepine won, Plaquemines almost certainly would withdraw from the lawsuits. Lawsuit proponents told voters that Plaquemines alone could garner hundreds of millions of dollars from the suits — but the voters rejected the sales pitch. They understood that the biggest winners, if the suit succeeds, will be not the parish, but the lawyers.
Voters chose Lepine, 52-48. Voters chose common sense, rather than the lure of jackpot justice.
These anti-oil-company lawsuits do not represent the sole reason Louisiana was listed as a judicial hellhole. But it was clearly the biggest reason. The descent into courtroom hell, writes ATRA, “began shortly after [Governor John Bel] Edwards took office in 2016. He issued an ultimatum to the state’s oil and gas industry, either spend billions of dollars on restoring the eroding coast line or face a drawn-out, costly legal battle. This attempted shake-down failed, and the two sides have been tied up in litigation ever since. When the oil and gas industry refused to comply with Edwards’ demands, he strong-armed six local parishes to file more than 40 lawsuits targeting major providers of oil and gas jobs in Louisiana….”
Here, though, is what voters in the state are now recognizing (again, using ATRA’s words): “Recent research conducted by Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies found that the benefits of drilling outweighed the costs and environmental risks. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the oil and gas industry employs about 5 percent of the state’s workforce, contributes about 10 percent of aggregated payroll, and accounts for 10 to 15 percent of tax revenue.”
By design, many of those proceeds already pay for projects aimed at stemming and reversing coastal erosion. If Louisiana lawmakers are bold, they also could place a small fee on oil and gas transported through their state. The fee could be transparent, understandable, affordable, fair, and forward-looking rather than what Edwards is trying to impose – a backhanded, backward-looking, unforeseen whammy against companies for doing exactly what they paid for the rights to do in the first place.
Lawsuits should seek redress for misbehavior, not retroactively punish entities for actions the authorities openly invited and endorsed. Plaquemines Parish voters recognized the latter approach as hellish. Their wisdom should be heeded.
This piece appeared Thursday at The Washington Examiner.