Oil companies want it all. Don’t tax us. Don’t regulate us. Don’t make us pay fines. Let us pollute. After all, we create jobs and put money into the State coffers. We also have the politicians in the State in our pockets with our contributions to their campaign funds. Is this a bleak picture?
When a natural gas pipeline fire in Paradis killed one worker and burned three others in 2017, the Louisiana State Police fined the Phillips 66 company $22,000 fine for failing to report the incident immediately. The fire burned for four days before first responders put it out. But the company ultimately didn’t pay any police fine, ending up with just a warning. That story is common, according to public records reviewed by the Louisiana Illuminator and Floodlight with The Guardian. State Police, which oversees pipeline safety in Louisiana, issued 34 fines and five warning letters in the past five years, and a quarter of the fines were reduced: three lowered, five replaced with warning letters and two dismissed. The fines that did stick were between $2,250 and $8,000. Despite that record, gas companies in the state say they are being treated unfairly and have lobbied to loosen requirements around reporting pipeline leaks. Louisiana has more gas pipelines than state except Texas, and more gas pipeline projects are planned in the state to support the growing demand for U.S. natural gas exports.nola.com
The most recent submission to oil is H.B. 549 submitted by Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, approved and sent to the Governor’s desk for signature. The most recent example of the power of oil to reduce regulations and keep their tax bills low. If the Governor signs the bill the industry will not have to report leeks of 1000 pounds or less unless death or hospitalization are a result of the spill.
Gene Dunegan, program manager for the State Police emergency services unit, defended the agency’s record on fines, saying it has reduced them when pipeline companies present reasonable explanations for failing to report leaks within an hour. While Louisiana law requires pipeline companies “immediately” to report leaks, it does not set a deadline; State Police ask companies to report incidents within an hour. “Our goal is not to collect monies, but to keep the violation from recurring,” Dunegan said. “Most [companies] are proactive and implement needed changes and training prior to hearing from us; others not so much.” Aside from potential harms to workers, gas leaks pose fire risks and can cause respiratory problems for people in nearby communities. Phillips 66 would not comment for this story. For its 2017 fire in Paradis, the company was separately fined $20,000 by the Department of Natural Resources.
In the past 5 years, the State Police have averaged less than 10 tickets a year.
One pipeline company’s name appears on the list more than any other: Centerpoint Energy, which was ticketed seven times in the past three years with fines totaling $38,750. Trey Hill, a lobbyist for Centerpoint, helped push McCormick’s bill through the Legislature. Centerpoint contested a ticket for failing to notify State Police of one natural gas release, but State Police dismissed the fine before a judge could decide on the case, Hill said in a legislative meeting in April. Atmos Energy, which was fined twice in 2020, also supported McCormick’s bill.
Louisiana also was one of the first to make trespassing pipelines a felony. This is to target protestors (oh yes, we also want no citizen oversight).
Louisiana was among the first states to make trespassing on pipelines a felony, which pipeline companies have used to target environmental protesters and journalists. A federal judge recently allowed a challenge to Louisiana’s anti-protest pipeline law to move forward. Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade environmental organization, said pipeline mishaps are already underreported. “These accidents are overlooked, business as usual,” she said. In other states, the leaks are often overseen by energy regulators. In Oklahoma, for example, violations are enforced by the Corporation Commission, but that state’s highway patrol may also file charges. In Louisiana, the Department of Natural Resources’ pipeline division regulates only much larger gas leaks in intrastate pipelines that carry toxic or flammable products. “Our role is to conduct an investigation after the fact,” Steven Giambrone, the pipeline division director, said in an April legislative committee hearing. “We’re not a first responder.”
One problem noted is that small leaks in a heavily populated area can cause more damage.
John Porter, commander of the State Police emergency services unit, warned lawmakers that looser reporting thresholds could trigger public health concerns when smaller leaks happen in populated areas. “If we have a gas leak at a major intersection, a thousand pounds would be an extreme amount with vehicles traveling by, with pedestrians traveling by,” he said. “And all we’re asking is for notification for us so we can get the proper emergency services people out there to protect the public.”
The bottom line is that the State should recognize that oil, while still here, is not the be all and end all of energy as they make it now. Younger legislatures may be able to make this change but that will take time.