BATON ROUGE — Legislation promoted by the oil and gas industry as a way to get old polluted exploration and production sites cleaned up was approved Wednesday by the state House of Representatives.
With an 82-16 vote, the House sent HB618 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, to the Senate for debate.
Abramson says the purpose of bill is so "oil and gas companies can admit fault and go out there and clean it up as soon as possible."
The bill says that if an oil or gas company involved in a "legacy lawsuit" — civil action sought by a landowner to get old pollution cleaned up — admits liability for the pollution, the Department of Natural Resources is to draw up a cleanup plan and submit it to a judge for approval.
Opponents of the measure say that's not likely to happen because most of these sites have been there for years and no one has admitted responsibility. Many of them have been worked by multiple companies and determining the responsible party is often difficult, so all of the companies that worked the sites are sued.
The opponents are concerned that the bill is designed to slow down lawsuits that have been filed to clean up the sites.
"If DNR is slower than the civil litigation, this in no way delays civil litigation going to court," Abramson said. "If one party admits responsibility, it starts the process."
"Have many oil companies ever admitted responsibility in this state?" asked Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Scott.
When Abramson said he couldn't answer the question, Montoucet said, "I have never experienced an oil company stepping up to the plate and saying 'we're going to clean it up.'"
Montoucet said he thinks Abramson's heart is in the right place in penning the legislation, but he disagrees with it.
"I don't want any regulatory agency to dictate to my farmers how their property is going to be cleaned up," Montoucet said.
He also expressed concern that Abramson's bill does nothing to relieve small independent oil and gas companies caught up in legacy litigation because of pollution left behind by big oil companies that leased the land before them.
"Any rights you have on your property today you will have tomorrow," Abramson said.
The state Legislature, in 2006, adopted Act 312 addressing legacy lawsuits, Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, said. Only one legacy site has been cleaned up since its passage, he said.
"It's time we clean up Louisiana," Dove said.
Supporters of the measure, including Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Shreveport, pointed out that the responsible party would have to pay for DNR drawing up the cleanup plan, for all court costs — including landowners' costs — and for the cleanup.
Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, pointed out that the standard of cleanup required by DNR is much lower than what's in the contract landowners sign when they allow drilling on their
Abramson said that can be addressed in the civil suit,
Edwards said a provision in the bill that says the cleanup plan proposed DNR must be admitted as evidence in the civil suit could influence a jury into thinking the site is being cleaned up when it's not being done at the level the oil or gas company pledged to the landowner.
The DNR standard is that vegetation could survive on the site, testimony in committee showed.
An attempt by Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, to get the House to make the bill apply only to future lawsuits filed to get sites cleaned up was rejected 83-13. Morris said that's likely to be the way courts interpret the measure, anyway, because it makes a substantive change in law.
Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, said the amendment would "give me, as an independent oil and gas operator, no opportunity to get out from under that lawsuit."
Senior reporter Claire Taylor contributed to this story.