By Mike Hasten
BATON ROUGE — Lafayette Rep. Page Cortez says HB563 is designed to force oil and gas companies to clean up land that’s been polluted during exploration and production and possibly head off lawsuits that linger for years.
“My goal is to see the environment is cleaned up,” he said.
Cortez, a supporter of the oil and gas industry, says he knows there are some “bad apples out there” who don’t want to clean up messes that they or their predecessors left behind but others take care of property they’ve leased.
He says he’s also aware of some landowners who just want the money from lawsuits against the companies and don’t clean up their property once they get an award or settlement.
Cortez said his legislation could eliminate some frivolous lawsuits filed by landowners who actually don’t have damage and it could speed up the process for people who want messes cleaned up.
“All it does is make the commissioner of conservation the first stop when there’s a pollution problem,” Cortez said. Current law, adopted in 2006, “says the commissioner can prescribe a remedy. This says he must.”
Another provision of the bill grants the commissioner authority to go to court if companies refuse to follow his orders.
HB563 is a “tweaking” of the 2006 “legacy sites” legislation authored by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton.
Adley said at a press conference that his legislation, which became Act 312, requires “money collected in lawsuits must go to the cost of cleanup.” He said he’s found that “companies are willing to clean up anything they’re required to clean up.”
However, when cases were settled out of court “people put the money in their pockets and went home. When they settle suits, lawyers walk away with money, landowners walk away with money and our land is not being cleaned up,” he said.
Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said the problem with legacy lawsuits started in 2002 when a court awarded in the Corbello decision “an $83 million settlement for an $83,000 cleanup cost. That created a new cottage industry” of attorneys who filed lawsuits and ones that defended companies.
Briggs said that since then, 243 lawsuits were filed involving 1,500 defendants because, over the years, companies buy and sell rights to explore and produce on the same pieces of properties and some companies change ownership. He said that since there are basically four to six major companies, the rest of the defendants are independent companies.
Of those 243 lawsuits, 60 were found to have no pollution, he said.
The likelihood of being sued has put a damper on companies willing to drill in Louisiana, Briggs said.
David Russell, whose company operates 500 producing wells spread out in 20 oil fields across the state, said he has talked to several independents and “they’re all scared to death” of being hit with lawsuits.
He said that since the oil fields he’s drilling in have been around since the 1950s and ’60s, a number of companies were there before him.
“The problem is plaintiffs are suing for more than the cost of cleanup,” Russell said.
Ginger Sawyer, vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said her organization supports the legislation because “we want to protect the viability of the oil and gas industry.”