By John Maginnis
Since its difficulties with Huey Long, Big Oil has sought to develop warm relations with Louisiana governors and vice versa, if they knew what was good for them.
In order to advance nationally within the Republican Party, whose last national convention erupted into chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill,” contenders must at least be acceptable to the energy industry. To the broader electorate, however, Gov. Bobby Jindal, as an oil-state governor under consideration for the GOP vice presidential nomination, can’t afford to be seen as an industry toady.
Early in his term, the governor and the oil companies got along swimmingly, as an industry journal praised his administration’s “improved” permitting process. The state’s boom in exploration, from the Outer Continental Shelf to the Haynesville Shale, led to economic development that he could share credit for, despite the national recession.
Then came BP. The massive oil spill that ravaged the Gulf, the coast and its economy offered Jindal a golden opportunity: to whup up on an oil company, with the state and the nation cheering him on. He also lashed out at the response of the Obama administration, through which he restored his GOP star quality that he damaged in his national speaking debut the year before.
Yet, while singling out BP, the governor championed the industry as a whole by leading the protest of the exploration moratorium imposed by the president, thus supporting the GOP’s job-killer line of attack against Obama.
As a bonus, the governor was able to connect the state’s legal claims against BP to a long-awaited, long-term plan for coastal restoration. Up for legislative approval is the administration’s 50-year, $50 billion coastal plan, the most comprehensive and science-based to be written. Its principal funding pieces, covering up to half the costs, are expected Gulf spill fines and offshore revenue sharing, beginning in 2017, for which Sen. Mary Landrieu gets credit.
Through his first term, Jindal struck a state and national profile an as overall defender of the industry while a lead critic of its worst actor, but also the man with the plan for the coast.
All which made the oil guys wonder why he would risk rupturing that relationship by his politics at the Legislature this spring. The companies looked to the governor to broker a favorable solution to their long-running legal battle with landowners and trial lawyers over oilfield pollution caused decades ago, when regulatory standards were lax to non-existent. The legal actions are called legacy lawsuits for the chain of leases that plaintiff’s lawyers went back through to reach the deep-pocketed majors.
The oil companies grew increasingly impatient and concerned that Jindal, through his negotiator Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle, would not fully back their position. They wanted a process for having the state submit remediation plans in court that would both get the sites cleaned up and limit the companies’ exposure to broader damage claims made in cookie-cutter lawsuits filed throughout south Louisiana. It more than peeved oil executives that Jindal seemed sympathetic to his friends major landowners Mike Foster and Roy O. Martin III, as well as small independent oil operators, who wanted to be let off the hook on damage claims. It further alarmed them that Jindal had collected $280,000 from trial lawyers in the last election cycle.
Much of this would have gone unnoticed by the general population but for Sen. David Vitter, who jumped in four-square behind the oil companies and called out Jindal for not forging a deal. Failing to do so, charged Vitter, maintained the status quo of the “trial lawyer bonanza.” Without saying so, he was putting Jindal’s vice-presidential possibilities on the line by casting him as an ally of trial lawyers and a foe to industry.
The matter dragged on until, suddenly, with state senators pressing for a resolution and with Jindal’s assent, the agreement came together. The companies got what they wanted, the landowners and small operators got something, the trial lawyers got nothing.
Had Jindal fallen in line early with the oil companies, he may have been labeled their lackey. Instead, he stuck with the local millionaires against the corporate billionaires, for a while, before making his deal and his peace with the petro giants. If anything, the resolution enhances his VP stock by having him appear as a friend but no tool of Big Oil.
For whatever it gets him, one can best describe Bobby Jindal’s oil politics as pretty slick.