Attorney General opinion: Term of 'Big Oil' lawsuit supporter has ended

Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell says a south Louisiana flood board member who supports the board's environmental lawsuit against the oil and gas industry has reached the end of his term. That means Gov. Bobby Jindal may soon have another weapon as he and the industry work to kill the lawsuit.

Caldwell's opinion is that the term of Paul Kemp on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East ended July 1. That would mean Jindal could replace Kemp quickly and tip the balance on the nine-member board to five lawsuit opponents and four supporters.

The opinion released Friday was issued to help clear up contradictions in administrative records. The flood board has records indicating Kemp's term expires next year. An independent nominating committee's records indicated Kemp's term ended this year.

Nominating committee chairman Jay Lapeyre said his panel's next meeting is Aug. 28. Jindal could have a chance to replace Kemp by fall.

Jindal has been replacing lawsuit supporters on the board as vacancies have occurred. At last month's SLPFA-E meeting, a move to kill the lawsuit failed in a 4-4 tie vote with one lawsuit supporter absent.

Caldwell's opinion, sought by the nominating committee, dealt with the terms of Kemp and Jeff Angers on the SLPFA-East and Kerwin Julian Sr. and Paul Dauphin on the SLPFA-West. Confusion and complications had arisen in part because the nominating committee and Jindal had made nominations and appointments long after vacancies had occurred. Flood authority business was not disrupted because members whose terms expire customarily remain on the job until a replacement is made.

The lawsuit, now in federal court, claims drilling and dredging by oil, gas and pipeline companies are partly to blame for degradation of coastal wetlands that serve as a natural hurricane buffer for New Orleans. It drew instant, vehement condemnation from Jindal, industry supporters in government and the industry itself.

Jindal supported and signed legislation designed to retroactively kill the lawsuit, which lawsuit supporters say will be challenged.

A decision by the board to kill its own suit could be costly. Its contract to hire outside lawyers would give them significant percentages of the damage claims if they win; nothing, if they lose. But it also includes a "poison pill" provision requiring that they be paid for the work they have done if the suit is withdrawn.

Last month, those costs were estimated to fall within a broad range by board members — anywhere from about $3 million to well over $11 million.

Caldwell's opinion states that the terms of Kemp and Angers, a lawsuit opponent, both ended July 1. On the SLFPA-West, which is not involved in the lawsuit, Julien's term expired July 1 and Dauphin's last year. Caldwell acknowledged that his opinion is not law and could be challenged in court, but there was no indication Friday that anyone planned a challenge.