- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2019

Oil exploration may no longer be a booming industry in southern Louisiana, but it remains a powerful figure politically, with a Republican candidate accusing Gov. John Bel Edwards of taking a hostile attitude toward a significant slice of the state’s workforce.

Rep. Ralph Abraham, one of two GOP candidates looking to unseat the incumbent governor this year, is running an ad saying Mr. Edwards has “declared war” on the oil sector, saying it’s gone largely dormant and employs far fewer people than it did when Mr. Edwards won his office in 2015.

“That ends the day I’m elected governor,” Mr. Abraham says after a quick clip of Mr. Edwards laughing demonically over some unrelated event.

The governor’s campaign says if anyone’s hostile it’s the congressman, saying “only one candidate has sued” the oil and gas industry — Mr. Abraham. That’s a reference to a lawsuit that was not directed against the industry itself and had nothing to do with coastal erosion; instead it concerned a botched subcontractor on a homeowner property issue, according to the Abraham camp.

The back-and-forth taps into a nostalgia for the cash the oil economy used to mean for the state — though the unanimity of support has broken down recently as some blame it for the deterioration of Louisiana’s marshy coast where it meets the Gulf of Mexico.

The industry contends it employs more than a quarter-million people in Louisiana and contributes more than $72 billion annually to the state’s economy, but it has suffered somewhat as fracking and other new production methods have caused a boom in other states.

Last year, economic forecasters at Louisiana State University sliced their estimates for job growth in the sector, citing “geopolitical forces,” along with price swings in the market.

The Edwards campaign disputed the challenger’s contention the sector has slumped.

“In 2018, the Louisiana Office of Conservation issued more oil and gas permits than in 2015 under Bobby Jindal, who Ralph Abraham said did ‘an outstanding job’ on the economy,” said Eric Holl, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign. “In fact, in the last fiscal year Louisiana received more in-state leasing than the previous three years combined. And our natural gas industry is booming.”

Eddie Rispone, a Republican businessman who’s also in the race — under Louisiana’s “jungle primary” system, all candidates run against each other regardless of party and the top two run off if nobody gets a majority of votes — says Mr. Edwards is the proper target, saying he’s being funded by another industry that’s anathema to the oil men.

“Gov. Edwards and this trial lawyer allies who have bankrolled his campaign are responsible for Louisiana losing thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industry,” Mr. Rispone told The Washington Times. “The lawsuit abuse and their assault on oil and gas ends the day I am elected governor.”

That charge dates back to September 2016 when Mr. Edwards sent an unusual letter to several parishes, some of whom had joined an earlier lawsuit against energy companies that had been tossed out of court, telling them bluntly that if they didn’t launch a crusade against energy companies in courts, the state would.

The field marshals of this legal assault would be a coterie of trial lawyers who have been some of Mr. Edwards biggest campaign contributors. Led by the Baton Rouge firm of Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello, the trial lawyers and some elected Louisiana officials envision billions in payouts, settlements they believe would match the bonanzas reaped in tobacco or BP litigation.

Fueling the GOP’s suspicions, the trial lawyers have formed Gumbo PAC to pool their resources on Mr. Edwards’ behalf.

The marking and lobbying arms of the energy sector, meanwhile, have adopted an “anyone but Edwards” stance, issuing a dual endorsement of Mr. Abraham and Mr. Rispone.

“Voters have a very clear choice here,” said Melissa Landry, an independent consultant in Louisiana who has worked closely with the oil and gas industry for years. “Both [GOP candidates] have positioned themselves in pretty stark contrast to the governor’s position, not only in terms of the litigation but also in terms of encouraging jobs and economic growth.”

While it’s widely accepted the energy sector shares some blame for Louisiana’s significant coastal erosion issues, particularly now that barrier islands in the Gulf have largely disappeared, experts debate its responsibility when compared with other factors, such as government twisting of the Mississippi River’s course that ruined its natural delta outlet.

Mr. Rispone and Mr. Abraham are expected to press the issue against Mr. Edwards later this month at the Southern Energy Conference in Lafayette, an event organized by the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, the primary industry groups.

LOGA and LMOGA, as they are known, also invited Mr. Edwards to their gubernatorial forum on Sept. 18 but the governor is slated to attend a fundraiser in Atlanta instead.

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