WASHINGTON — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed a bill Friday to quash a landmark lawsuit brought by a local flood protection agency that sought damages from the oil and gas industry to restore the state’s vanishing coastline.
Jindal signed the legislation — which prevents government bodies in Louisiana from pursuing such litigation — despite warnings from the state attorney general and nearly 100 legal experts. Critics of the law say it is so broad it could potentially imperil hundreds of other lawsuits against oil and gas companies, including litigation against BP for its role in the 2010 Gulf oil spill.
“I am proud to sign it into law,” Jindal said in a statement, calling the litigation “frivolous.” The Republican said the law “further improves Louisiana’s legal environment by reducing unnecessary claims that burden businesses so that we can bring even more jobs to our state.”
The bill was one of at least seven championed this year by the Jindal administration’s legislative allies to kill coastal-damage lawsuits brought by state agencies against the oil and gas industry, a pillar of Louisiana’s economy and a powerful force in its politics.
The state loses the equivalent of a football field of land every hour to the Gulf of Mexico, and has lost a quarter of its coastline since the 1930s. Partially repairing the coastline by 2050 would cost $50 billion, the state estimated.
A leading cause of the land loss is the system of canals that oil and gas companies have cut through fragile wetlands for decades, with the state’s approval, to haul equipment and install pipelines. Scientists say the dredging let salt water flow in, killing vegetation that kept the land from eroding. Without the buffer of these marshes and barrier islands, Louisiana’s many low-lying coastal communities, including New Orleans, now have little natural protection from storm surges created by hurricanes.
In July 2013, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, an independent board that oversees flood protection for New Orleans, decided that oil and gas companies should pay their share and voted unanimously to sue all 97 companies operating in the state for unspecified damages. Suits by several parish governments followed over the last year.
The bill Jindal signed would retroactively halt the board’s lawsuit. Legal experts from around the country warned that the bill’s language could also strip the state of its ability to sue oil and gas companies for future damage and could endanger litigation underway against BP. The attorney general, James D. “Buddy” Caldwell, agreed and urged Jindal to veto the bill.
The Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, which has argued that the lawsuits are the work of “greedy trial lawyers,” welcomed the new law. “The passing of this piece of legislation represents the idea that greed will not trump hard work and determination,” said Don Briggs, the trade group’s president.
Lawyers for the flood protection board said they were considering suing the state over the law.
“Is there a single person in Louisiana who believes the governor is putting the state’s interest ahead of his personal ambition?” said John Barry, a former member of the flood protection board and the driving force behind the lawsuit. “The attorney general, the president of Jefferson Parish, the New Orleans City Council and others all called upon the governor to veto the bill. I think he signed it today because they were just the beginning of a broad chorus from around the state and he wanted to cut that off before that chorus became deafening.”