On Sept. 21, 2016, a letter was signed and sent by Gov. John Bel Edwards to multiple coastal parishes in the state of Louisiana to “encourage” them to sue oil and gas companies in their parishes, as well as those that previously operated in the area.
In this letter, the governor explained that the state has intervened in lawsuits filed by Plaquemines, Jefferson, Vermilion and Cameron parishes in the hopes of landing a big payday from the industry in the name of coastal restoration. It goes on to say that a few hand-selected attorneys hired by the governor—at taxpayer expense, many with direct ties to his campaign last year—have told him that the parishes receiving this letter were ripe to join in the lawsuit. The governor’s attorneys obviously asked him to “encourage” the coastal parishes to get with the new program and apparently he was obliged to do so.
The letter was explicit that in the new Louisiana, these parishes had better sue or get the heck out of the way. Gone are the days of attempting to work collaboratively with all stakeholders to confront the challenge of coastal erosion in a comprehensive and responsible way. That is so 2015. The letter made it clear that there is a new sheriff in town, lawsuits are the new rage and time is a-wasting.
Some parishes have stood up to previous threats from a variety of actors and repeatedly said they don’t want to sue. They like and need the jobs and investment in their area that oil and gas companies provide, and they want to keep the backbone of their economy intact. The governor’s letter gave these parishes 30 days to get over those feelings.
As evidenced, the letter contained the following sentence, “We encourage you to consult with your private counsel and file such a suit, in which Secretary Harris will then intervene. Should you not do so within thirty (30) days of the date of this letter, Secretary Harris will do so.”
That’s right. The governor signed a letter telling parishes to either sue a valid operating business in their community for conducting legal and permitted operations—or he will do it for them. Those are the only two options made available. Is this where we are headed in the new Louisiana?
Imagine if this letter told parishes with high obesity rates they better sue local fast food restaurants within 30 days to get a settlement to pay for Medicaid costs or else. What if the letter said that parishes had to sue local contractors within 30 days due to infrastructure they built that influenced the natural flow of water or else the state would do it for them?
Are local paper mills, farmers and auto dealers next to be sued by Louisiana government for coastal erosion or global warming? Are local gun manufacturers and sporting goods stores next in line for contributing to violent crime? What about prescribing health care professionals and local pharmacies for the drug epidemic that plagues too many of our communities?
This template of state government forcing local government to sue local industry and blame them for large societal challenges is unprecedented, and it is sure to send shock waves across the country. What Louisiana business can honestly look in the mirror without questioning whether they are next on the chopping block if such a lawsuit gameplan is perpetuated by our elected leaders?
If the governor’s plan works, the game is on.
Creative trial lawyers will start working the white board in their conference rooms to find the next bonanza to use the governor’s template. Restaurants, contractors, hospitals beware. Transportation companies watch out. The seafood industry is on notice. No business, small or large, is safe in the new Louisiana if it is easy to force parishes to sue a valid company for conducting legal activities within their parish lines, or simply watch the state do it for them.
We are better than this. If any company from any industry operates in violation of a permit or illegally operates without one altogether, then justice should be sought. But that is not what we are talking about here. This effort is more about blaming a viable industry for a challenging public problem and using taxpayer-funded governmental lawsuits to shake them down. This is poor public policy and a toxic message to send to the rest of the nation about what it means to operate in Louisiana.
Louisiana is a great place to live and work. Our people are second to none and our resources are rich and diverse. This should be a magnet for investment and growth. We should absolutely be the economic engine of the South. Instead, our economy is running on fumes while we continuously throw sand in our gears through a long history of actions just like this.
This time, it has gone too far. This time, we have to say enough is enough.
Stephen Waguespack is the president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Originally published in the fourth quarter 2016 edition of 10/12 Industry Report.