State judge: Bill aimed at killing lawsuit against oil industry is unconstitutional

The Louisiana Legislature's attempt to retroactively kill a flood board's lawsuit against the oil industry over damage to the state's coast is unconstitutional, a state judge ruled late Friday.

Judge Janice Clark's decision came a day after two of the smaller players in the suit agreed to a settlement with the New Orleans-area board, known as the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.

An attorney for the board said the settlement includes a $50,000 payment from two Texas companies: White Oak Operating LLC and Chroma Operating Inc. A joint statement from attorneys on all sides said the terms were reasonable.

Gifford Briggs of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association said Friday that the settlement is insignificant compared to the potential multibillion-dollar costs to the industry. Briggs predicted the lawsuit eventually will be dismissed.

The authority, which oversees New Orleans-area levee boards, filed the lawsuit in 2013, alleging that drilling and dredging activity by more than 90 companies contributed to the loss of coastal wetlands that form a natural hurricane buffer for New Orleans. The lawsuit is pending in federal court.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and industry supporters have harshly criticized the lawsuit as an attack on a vital industry. They won approval of a law in the last legislative session aimed at killing the suit retroactively.

Clark said Friday that the law was unconstitutional for several reasons. Among them: It violated the state constitution's separation of powers by seeking to retroactively address an earlier court decision allowing the suit to go on. Also, Clark said, the constitution does not allow the state to take away the levee board's power to go to court over coastal restoration issues.

Clark had earlier ruled that the new law seeking to stop such lawsuits by local governments was not written properly to address the flood protection authority. A finding that the law is unconstitutional means her decision can be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.

Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates said the administration believes the law passed in the last legislative session is constitutional and that Clark's ruling was improper. She did not indicate whether officials would appeal to the Supreme Court.