Louisiana’s Hewitt promises to shut down coastal litigation

Decision puts her at odds with GOP-endorsed gubernatorial foe Landry

By Victor Skinner, The Center Square

(The Center Square) — Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. Sharon Hewitt is promising to shut down all coastal litigation involving alleged damage from energy companies.

“On my first day in office, I will instruct my Secretary of Natural Resources to immediately pause all coastal litigation,” Hewitt, the Senate majority leader, told the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association in Lake Charles on Monday. “I will not allow baseless litigation to be weaponized against the oil industry, holding producers to made-up standards fabricated to enrich trial lawyers. I will not do it.”

Hewitt’s comments follow a decision by officials at the Department of Natural Resources in late October to override the objections of local leaders to sign onto a proposed $100 million settlement with Freeport-McMoRan on behalf of four parishes that refused.

The settlement involves one of 43 ongoing lawsuits from coastal parishes that allege more than 200 energy companies damaged the coastline by creating canals and other development, despite federal permits authorizing the work.

The Freeport-McMoRan settlement would require the company to pay $23.5 million over the next two decades to fund coastal restoration projects, while the remainder of the money would be funneled into an environmental credit scheme that critics have likened to a political slush fund.

Councilmen in multiple parishes have criticized the proposed settlement, alleging the trial attorneys behind it stand to reap millions from the deal.

The pro-energy Grow Louisiana Coalition has worked to urge parishes to reject the settlement, as well, pointing to $435 million the oil and gas industry has contributed to coastal work since 2017.

“The number one reason is it’s better to work with the oil and gas industry in south Louisiana than to work against it,” Marc Ehrhardt previously told The Center Square.

Research from the Pelican Institute shows the state lost 2,000 jobs in the two years after the coastal lawsuits were first filed in 2013, resulting in $70 million in lost wages. The policy group estimates between $43 million and $113 million in annual economic losses since the lawsuits were filed, which equates to a $22.6 million loss for state and local governments for schools, roads and other infrastructure.

Before becoming a lawmaker, Hewitt worked for Shell for two decades, initially on an offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico before working her way up to a high-ranking executive charged with overseeing hundreds of employees and billions in deep water assets.

In Lake Charles, the Slidell Republican called for an in-depth review of any allegations by the DNR’s long standing regulatory and administrative enforcement authority.

“We know that over the last 40 years, DNR has issued hundreds, if not thousands, of citations for violations of our coastal laws and regulations,” she said. “Unlike these lawsuits, DNR has never sued or cited anyone for things that took place before any laws or regulations were in place. We don’t have ex post facto laws in Louisiana — it’s a violation of the most basic principles of our legal system. True violations should be handled through citations, in accordance with DNR regulations and state law.”

Hewitt’s position on the coastal litigation stands in contrast to her Republican competition for governor, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who in 2021 signed off on the Freeport-McMoRan settlement.

The Louisiana Republican Party endorsed Landry for the 2023 gubernatorial election in November.