In a staggering revelation, Louisiana Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Thomas Harris admitted under oath that he delegated sweeping governmental power over coastal drilling litigation to a personal injury attorney, all to the financial benefit of political cronies.

The Pelican Institute discovered the news via a public records request of the DNR, which turned over Harris’ April 2023 deposition in the case of Parish of Cameron v. Auster Oil and Gas, Inc., et al. That case is one of 43 lawsuits that were filed against oil and gas companies alleging that their drilling activity in Louisiana nearly a century ago damaged the coast. In the deposition, Harris testified that rather than investigating the allegations made against the oil and gas companies before the state joined the lawsuits, DNR left it to the law firms representing the parishes—who stand to benefit financially from a settlement or trial verdict—to search for regulatory violations instead. Harris’ testimony means that he effectively appointed a private personal injury attorney as the de facto head of a state agency.

The Auster lawsuit was filed in November 2013. However, the State of Louisiana, through DNR, did not get involved in the coastal lawsuits until a change in administration. Governor John Bel Edwards took office in January 2016, and selected Secretary Harris to lead DNR. Lawyers for DNR filed a Petition in Intervention on April 13, 2016. The DNR’s mission is “to ensure and promote sustainable and responsible use of the natural resources for our state so that they are available for the enjoyment and benefit of our citizens now and in the future.” Harris agreed under oath that as Secretary, his role could be described as CEO of a department with a budget ranging from $60 to $70 million annually with over 300 employees.[1] He acknowledged that inspecting the claims made in connection with the lawsuit are within the scope of the department’s mission. However, Harris repeatedly admitted under oath that his department did not investigate the claims made in the lawsuit to determine whether the allegations were true before intervening, despite having access to the records.[2][3]

During his examination by Michael Phillips, an attorney representing Chevron, Harris admitted that DNR ceded the agency’s responsibility for enforcing drilling regulations to a private attorney without executive department approval or a retention agreement:

Phillips: So it would be accurate for me to say that what you have described to do is farm out your responsibility for the Department of Natural Resources to private counsel, who isn’t even retained by your office?

Harris: That is an option provided for by law.

Phillips: What is an option?

Harris: The lead to take legal action, basically file lawsuit, as opposed to the administrative option.

Phillips: Okay. I’m not asking about that. I’m saying that you’ve made a choice, rather than the agency taking on responsibility for enforcing permits under the applicable laws and regulations, you have farmed out that responsibility to private lawyers representing the parishes?

Harris: Yes. And really don’t have the option of—basically, I’m faced with the choice of not issuing any new permits and—or taking new enforcement action and dedicating our entire staff to doing this review, or farming it out. And the decision made was the latter.

Phillips: Okay. And let’s—I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s talk about this. Numerous times—in affidavits and testimony to the legislature, here today—you consistently say we don’t have the personnel to do the work; right?

Harris: Correct.

Phillips: But having 60 to $70 million a year in your budget, and the ability to hire private lawyers in-house to look after these lawsuits, the fact is, you haven’t done anything to support your intervention this lawsuit, have you?

Harris: Really—really have not.[4]

Furthermore, Harris testified that the administrative process calls for DNR to inform and oil company working in Louisiana of violations they were found to have committed and provide an opportunity to make appropriate repairs. Instead, DNR joined in the lawsuit against the oil and gas companies, which Harris acknowledged breaks from protocol and is “inconsistent because we’re not following the administrative process at all.”[5]

Secretary Harris’ testimony confirms what we’ve known all along: government bureaucrats and trial lawyers are colluding against Louisianans to generate big paydays for political allies while driving away jobs and opportunities—and doing nothing to repair our coast.

This kind of corruption is just one of many reasons that Louisiana needs fundamental government reform in order to set the state on the right track—and to ensure Louisiana’s comeback. You can read more about the Pelican Institute’s Center for Justice here and about our Comeback Agenda here.

Sarah Harbison is General Counsel at the Pelican Institute.

[1] Pp. 226-227.

[2] Pp. 86-87.

[3] P. 188.

[4] Pp. 258-259.

[5] Pp. 193-194.