Guest Column by Sharon Hewitt, Candidate for Governor: LOGA Industry Report
Those bumper stickers could be reprinted today as our loved ones once again leave for better opportunities elsewhere. But this time, the state’s outmigration crisis is one of our own making.
The governor, attorney general, and certain private personal injury lawyers argue in court that we must sacrifice good-paying jobs for our citizens as the only way to protect our coast. Even though we have an entire executive agency, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of employees, which exists for this very purpose, the governor and the attorney general have teamed up and cut a deal to transfer all these state responsibilities to a team of anti-energy private plaintiff attorneys.
That changes when I’m governor.
It’s as simple as ensuring that oil and gas companies follow the laws passed by the legislature, and the state enforces them. On day 1, I will immediately instruct my Secretary of Natural Resources to pause all coastal litigation. I will not allow baseless litigation to be weaponized against the oil industry.
The legislature empowered DNR with authority and provided it with resources to investigate permit violations, enforce compliance, and attempt to identify unpermitted activity in the coastal zone. DNR can also collect fines and penalties from companies determined to have violated the terms of their permits. For over 40 years, DNR enforced the state’s laws and regulations governing the oil and gas industry. The department has issued hundreds, if not thousands, of citations for violations of those coastal laws and regulations.
We were recently appalled to learn that the current DNR Secretary testified under oath during a deposition that he farmed out the department’s responsibility to investigate permit violations to private trial lawyers working on a secret compensation arrangement.
So, what changed? When did ensuring that the environment is protected and taxpayers are made whole become insufficient for the state? What is the catalyst for this complete abdication of responsibility?
In 2016, when a new governor took office, following a campaign funded by trial lawyers, DNR decided that instead of issuing citations, it would join the lawsuits filed against oil and gas companies by some coastal parishes. The attorney general joined the lawsuits too. These suits demand billions of dollars from companies to pay for alleged violations of permits — permits that are issued, regulated, and enforced by DNR. These lawsuits hold producers to made-up standards fabricated to enrich the trial lawyers who put the current governor in office.
Even the attorney general should understand that ex-post-facto applications of laws like these violate the most basic principles of our legal system.
The time and money wasted on this distraction would have been better spent on constructive efforts to protect Louisiana communities from floods and restore our coast. Ironically, the energy industry is the number one private investor in Louisiana’s coastal restoration program. Thirty-five cents from every dollar in the coastal restoration budget comes from offshore-leasing revenues. The Grow Louisiana Coalition estimates that the oil and gas industry has contributed $435 million to coastal work since 2017. These funds have been used for projects such as strengthening levees and enhancing flood protection in our coastal communities. Our parishes benefit when we work with the oil and gas companies, not file frivolous lawsuits against them to help a handful of political donors.
Coastal communities benefit from operators’ philanthropic efforts as well. After all, their employees live in those communities. Oil and gas companies donated millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours in support of relief efforts following Hurricane Ida. Industry partners have converted decommissioned drilling platforms into artificial reefs, preserving fish habitats for generations. They support smoking cessation efforts, invest in local artists, and provide children with back-to-school supplies. Moreover, they develop our workforce by promoting STEM education and mentoring and training our students for high-demand, high-wage careers. If we work with the industry instead of against it, there will be great-paying jobs, keeping those skilled workers — our sons and daughters — in Louisiana.
"On day one, I will immediately instruct my Secretary of Natural Resources to pause all coastal litigation."
As a Senator and a member of the Natural Resources Committee, I have introduced and supported legislation that would end these lawsuits. I also fought efforts to implement the sham settlement between the state and Freeport-McMoRan while the attorney general, shockingly, signed off on this ridiculous money-grab settlement. My opposition to these frivolous lawsuits has been documented by several guest columns published by The Advocate and Houma Today,1 in addition to my legislative voting record. I have been working on this issue for so long that when the state first intervened in the coastal lawsuits in 2016, the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) listed Louisiana as a mere "judicial hellhole." Since then, ATRA downgraded the state to an "everlasting hellhole" and cited the dubious coastal litigation and government cronyism as reasons for this dishonor.
This election is a make-or-break one for our state. Young people are leaving Louisiana in droves for better opportunities in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. These states are growing because their leaders have found ways to work with businesses, not use them to reward their cronies.
With his cozy relationship with these opportunistic trial lawyers, the attorney general, if he becomes governor, will finish the march to killing our oil and gas industry and sending our high-paying jobs to Texas.
The war against our job creators ends, and a new era of growth and prosperity begins on January 8, 2024, when I’m sworn in as your next governor.
The choice could not be more straightforward.
1 "It’s Time for DNR to Do Its Job," The Advocate, 2016 "Lawsuits Won’t Save the Coast," The Advocate, 2017 "Letter: Let’s Look for Solutions, Not Lawsuits," Houma Today, 2018