The last few years have seen state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, introduce one measure after another to smother the flames created by so-called legacy lawsuits in Louisiana. Legacy lawsuits arise from old — sometimes decades-old — contamination of land by oil and gas drillers. The litigation gets its name because subsequent drillers on contaminated lands "inherit" the liability created by previous, often defunct companies.
As Adley has carried the legislative ball for Big Oil, which constantly seeks to limit its exposure to environmental litigation, landowners and environmen-talists have likewise ramped up their opposition campaigns.
As the Legislature begins the latest incarnation of the ongoing debate, Adley, a licensed Christian minister, is serving as the Upper Chamber's Jeremiah, telling all what's to come. "You need to be prepared," he says. "I'm telling you, they'll start running TV. They'll run radio."
A high-dollar political consultant — Roy Fletcher of Baton Rouge — was perhaps too effective in attacking Adley's message in a previous battle. "I ended up hiring him for my next campaign," Adley recalls.
The legacy issue is complicated. Contaminated lands require mitigation, and lawsuits have led to huge judgments — which may or may not lead to cleanups. This issue is not your typical business-versus-trial lawyers scrap. In many lawsuits, both sides are millionaires. That makes it tough for lawmakers to choose sides.
Landowners argue that the current system gives too much leverage to Big Oil. Big Oil argues that trial lawyers are milking the issue to line their pockets. Environmentalists say the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) inevitably backs Big Oil.
How should liability be addressed? Who should mediate? How should the fields be restored? There are no easy answers.
During last year's legislative debate, opponents unleashed robocalls in the districts of lawmakers on a key House committee. The calls stirred up voters and prompted them to press "1" to be connected directly to their lawmaker.
Rep. Truck Gisclair, D-Larose, who has a bill this year to regulate robocalls, says his office was "swamped with hundreds of calls, about 400 to 500 in a three-hour period." last year.
For those who can't afford robocalls, there's always email blasts and ethics complaints. House Civil Law Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, said someone recently threatened him with a "firestorm" if he moved forward with his legacy bill, which is backed by Big Oil.
Sure enough, last week — the night before a committee vote on Abramson's bill — New Orleans political consultant Cheron Brylski issued a statement accusing Abramson of having a "conflict of interest" because his law firm represents oil companies. The next day, Don Carmouche, an attorney for several landowners, filed a complaint against Abramson with the Louisiana Ethics Board, stating the same charge.
Abramson practices law at the New Orleans firm of Liskow & Lewis. According to the firm's website, he represents "oil and gas companies in legacy suits involving claims of property and groundwater contamination."
Abramson says he has handled only a "few matters" involving legacy cases. The conflict of interest claim is a lie, he says, adding that lawmakers file bills in regard to their professions all the time. "That's how the process works," he said, calling the attacks "totally out of bounds and inappropriate."
Part of the criticism was based on Abramson's decision to move forward on the bill while negotiations continued between landowners and Big Oil. Opponents of the bills felt betrayed because they believed no bills would move forward while the two sides were trying to forge a compromise.
Abramson's House Bill 618 won committee approval last week. It allows the courts to admit as evidence cleanup plans submitted by DNR. The provision was backed by the oil industry and opposed by landowners, who claim Big Oil virtually owns DNR.
The bill has a long way to go, but already it's clear that both sides of this fight have money and political muscle to spare.
Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.