State courts keep wetlands loss suits against oil companies

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Oil companies facing lawsuits that blame them for coastal wetlands loss in Louisiana lost an attempt Monday to move the suits to federal court.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a decision keeping the suits in state court, where the six coastal parishes want them tried.

The lawsuits, some of them dating to 2013, charge that oil and gas firms failed to follow state law when they drilled wells, built canals, disposed of waste and carried out other activities that contributed to coastal wetlands loss. Industry representatives cast the suits as an unjust attack — led by trial lawyers — on a vital industry and employer.

Monday's 5th Circuit decision dealt with cases filed by two parishes, Cameron and Plaquemines, but attorney John Carmouche, a lead attorney for the parishes, said it effectively applies to four others: Jefferson, Vermilion, St. Bernard and St. John the Baptist.

The ruling by Judge James Ho on behalf of a three-judge 5th Circuit panel said the energy company defendants, which include Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, ConoccoPhillips and others, had previously tried and failed to have the state cases moved to federal courts. The latest attempt came after one of the parishes filed a report with what the oil companies said was new information that warranted moving the cases to federal jurisdiction. The report said some of the wells involved in the lawsuits were drilled during World War II while the companies were acting under the authority of a federal wartime agency.

“We conclude that the information disclosed in the expert report did not provide new information previously unavailable to the companies,” Ho's opinion said.

John Carmouche, a lead lawyer for the parishes, said the oil companies’ attempts to move the cases to federal court were a delaying tactic. He said he is hopeful now that a trial date can be set.

But a spokesperson for attorneys representing major oil companies remarked that the court's ruling Monday "does nothing to strengthen the factually and legally meritless claims at issue in this litigation."

“Reaching back in time to sue for decades of federally authorized activities that were lawfully conducted and actively encouraged by these very same government plaintiffs is neither fair nor productive,” attorney Melissa Landry said in a statement from the lawyers representing BP America Production Company, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Pipeline Company and Shell.

The industry-allied Grow Louisiana Coalition expressed disappointment at the ruling in an emailed statement.

___

This story has been corrected to properly identify Melissa Landry as a spokesperson for oil company attorneys.