BATON ROUGE, LA. (AP) — A proposal pushed by Louisiana's oil and gas industry to let refineries and other industrial plants keep some environmental violations secret fell a handful of votes short of House passage Thursday, amid fierce opposition that it could hide the impacts of the state's petrochemical industry.
Lawmakers voted 46-40 for the measure, but it needed 53 votes to pass. Rep. Stuart Bishop, the Lafayette Republican who sponsored the bill, could bring it up again this session.
The Advocate reports the proposal would create a "self-audit" system, potentially allowing 1,600 facilities throughout Louisiana to voluntarily report violations of environmental rules to state regulators. The information the companies volunteered would be kept confidential and could not be used against the companies to penalize them.
The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association pushed the idea, which is supported by industry groups and firms such as Shell, Entergy and Cheniere Energy.
Lawmakers held a lengthy debate over the bill Thursday, with proponents saying it would encourage industry to self-report "minor" infractions that taken together would help avert major problems.
Tyler Gray, head of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, during committee debate on the proposal said it would help free up manpower the Department of Environmental Quality to focus on "bad actors." He said exemptions to the system laid out in the bill would prevent serious or criminal acts from being kept confidential or included in the process.
He said companies currently don't have incentives to report violations.
"We're trying to create an environment in which they would report," Gray said.
Critics decried it as a way for industry to hide environmental problems and skirt due process. Environmental groups said it would give regulatory power to the companies themselves.
"This bill is very dangerous," said Rep. Patrick Connick, a Marrero Republican, who cited a cyanide plant in Waggaman that has had environmental problems. "We're representing the people here. This is the people's House. It's not a House of oil and gas."
The idea is not a new one. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry pushed a similar bill in 1997 as one of its top priorities that year. But the bill failed.
"I don't know why we're seeing this bill 22 years later," said Kathy Wascom, an environmentalist who was around when LABI pushed the 1997 bill. "I don't know why they're bringing it up at this time unless they have something they really want to hide that's a real problem."
Bishop pointed to the Trump administration's EPA, which last year announced a "renewed emphasis" on self-disclosure violation policies. But that effort was focused on new owners when they take over facilities to find issues and report them. Lawmakers shot down an amendment to make Bishop's bill apply only to new owners.
Perry Theriot, a lawyer with the state Department of Environmental Quality, could not say exactly what would be covered if the bill passed.
"It's an extensively technical bill, and it's hard for us to really determine," Theriot said.