Sen. Sharon Hewitt. (Photo by Greg LaRose)

This story was produced in partnership with Floodlight, the Louisiana Illuminator and The Guardian.

Less than a week after a carbon dioxide pipeline operated by Denbury Resources burst in a rural Mississippi community — sending nearly 50 people to the hospital — Louisiana Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt filed a bill drafted by Denbury into her own state’s legislature. 

The law, passed in 2020, could make it more difficult for Louisiana landowners to push back against CO2 pipelines, which are used to transport carbon pollution captured from fossil fuel projects. The bill was introduced and signed into law the same year that Hewitt’s husband earned up to $4,999 in royalties from Denbury, according to Hewitt’s 2020 financial disclosure statement

That wasn’t the first time Hewitt, who is considering running for governor, has used her political influence in a way that could benefit her family’s finances.* She also pushed for laws that could benefit her husband’s company.  

Seven parishes, which include the city of New Orleans, are embroiled in ongoing lawsuits against more than 200 oil and gas companies for their part in damaging Louisiana’s wetlands, which protect coastal communities from storms and store carbon–the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change. One company named in those suits is LLOG Exploration, where Hewitt’s husband, Stan, has worked as an engineer for nearly a decade and earns more than $100,000 per year. Hewitt sponsored two bills and one resolution aimed at dismissing the lawsuits brought by the coastal communities against oil and gas companies – including LLOG.

In the past three years, she has introduced, co-sponsored and voted on at least seven pieces of legislation that would benefit the oil company her husband works for or his fossil fuel investments.

Hewitt, her husband and Denbury, which is now called Denbury Inc., did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s so brazenly personal. It boils down to the level of the individual and their bank account,” said Itai Vardi, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute (EPI), a watchdog group focused on revealing the influence of fossil fuel companies. “It seems like she’s just trying to fend off these lawsuits that are aimed at her husband’s and other companies’ bottom lines. It’s one level above your standard Louisiana legislator who might own stocks in Exxon.”

There is a long history in the Louisiana State Capitol of legislators passing laws that profit their respective industries, but public policy experts point to Hewitt’s record as evidence of the oil and gas industry’s outsized influence at the legislature, despite its diminishing role in the state’s economy. Louisiana is experiencing more intense storms, coastal flooding and tornadoes that strike at night because of climate change, and lawmakers like Hewitt are digging in to protect the industry.

While introducing the bill Denbury drafted, Senate Bill 353, Hewitt in a May 2020 legislative committee hearing described the measure as a “great example of collaboration between the Department [of Natural Resources] and the industry.”

Public documents shared with Floodlight by EPI show that Hewitt worked closely with the oil and gas industry in multiple instances, including drafting legislation, writing testimony supporting it and sorting out legal issues.

Hewitt was elected to the Louisiana State Senate in 2015, after working for nearly 20 years as a mechanical engineer and oil and gas executive for Shell. In 2018, Hewitt was awarded “National Legislator of the Year” by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-supported conservative group known for pushing “model legislation”  — covering everything from gun rights and immigration to energy industry regulation — in state legislatures. 

Critics say her financial ties and legislative actions are an example of how Louisiana lawmakers are deeply intertwined with the oil and gas industry and avoid corporate accountability which, in turn, makes the state more vulnerable to climate change-driven storms and flooding.

“There is a point at which it goes beyond conflict of interest to the abdication of duty,” said Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, a non-profit focused on strengthening laws to protect the environment and human health.

Carbon Captured

Hewitt’s original bill amending carbon capture regulations would have capped liability for corporations to 10 years after carbon capture projects ended, but that part of the proposal was nixed. What became law could scale back how much a landowner can weigh in on a planned carbon dioxide pipeline.

Carbon capture has become the preferred climate solution for fossil fuel companies, many of which have lobbied for the technology at the state legislature and with its climate task force. At least nine projects have been announced in Louisiana that would involve building carbon capture technology on new or existing facilities. This February, Louisiana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy blocked Environmental Protection Agency nominees from confirmation over how long it’s taken the federal agency to give the state the right to approve and issue the permits necessary for carbon capture projects without EPA involvement.

Financially, companies in the state have a lot to gain from carbon capture. The technology extends the lifetime of fossil fuel companies, allowing them a path forward to continue to operate in the face of increasing climate regulations. Carbon capture lets

fossil fuel firms avoid strictly reducing their emissions and will require building out thousands of miles of pipelines nationwide. And those involved in the technology are in a prime position to see investment from the federal government. President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Bill that passed in 2021 appropriates more than $12 billion toward carbon capture and utilization projects.

Those projects aim to pull carbon from the atmosphere or capture the heat-trapping emissions at the pollution source. The carbon is then condensed into a super-cold liquid and transported through pipelines and stored underground or more often used to force more oil out of the ground — called enhanced oil recovery — resulting in increased oil production and continuing the dirty emissions cycle.

Muffett, of the Center for International Environmental Law, said that Hewitt’s bill could limit input from landowners in the pathway of pipelines during the eminent domain process, which can be used to force people to accept pipeline rights-of-way on their land.

Hewitt’s 2020 legislation essentially removed landowners in the path of carbon capture pipelines from the list of potential stakeholders to be considered. According to a trove of internal emails shared with Floodlight, one Louisiana Department of Natural Resources staff member referred to the bill openly as “Denbury’s CCS bill.”

A 2020 email obtained by Floodlight referring to Hewitt-sponsored legislation as “Denbury’s CCS bill.”

“It’s unsurprising that a major CO2 pipeline operator would delete pipelines from the eminent domain processes,” Muffett said. “What is regrettable is that anyone vested with the public trust would let them get away with it, particularly since Denbury was the pipeline operator behind the pipeline rupture in Mississippi.”

The pipeline rupture in Yazoo County, Mississippi, sent 49 residents to the hospital, many disoriented and struggling to breathe. The gas displaced oxygen in the air, stalled people’s cars – which need oxygen to run – and made residents foam at the mouth.

Environmental and community groups caution that carbon capture technology is not proven to work, will not address other forms of harmful air pollution and directs subsidies away from alternative renewable energy. The United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report does acknowledge that technology to pull carbon from the air or capture it from plants is needed, but it emphasizes that the bigger need is to stop producing and using fossil fuels, and that industry lobbying has stalled that progress. 

Patrick Courreges, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, told Floodlight that Denbury – a company with plans to expand its at least 275 miles of carbon dioxide pipelines in Louisiana – gave the department a “courtesy heads-up” that it had drafted legislation it was shopping around to legislators in the hopes they would introduce the bill during the 2020 legislative session. 

Hewitt became that legislator. 

The bill Denbury proposed would have weakened state regulations around corporate liability for carbon capture projects once they are not in use. That could have jeopardized the state’s proposal to the EPA that it should be able to oversee carbon capture projects on its own, agency staff worried.

“We had some deep concerns,” Courreges said.

Jane Patton, the campaign manager for plastics and petrochemicals for Center for International Environmental Law, said even though the bill was amended, Denbury’s involvement is concerning.

“It is absolutely stunning that a public department of our government would be supporting a corporate entity changing state law in this way, ” Patton said. “I don’t care if this is common practice. We need to keep being outraged.”

Hewitt’s History of Involvement

In another instance, Hewitt’s ties with the industry put her at odds with the coastal parishes she represents. 

St. Bernard, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes have pursued lawsuits against oil and gas companies for damages they alleged were caused when the companies dredged canals through the wetlands to drill and then didn’t remediate the damage – causing the wetlands to erode. With no further flood protection or wetland restoration projects, St. Bernard Parish could lose 72% of its landmass, according to the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. 

In 2020, Hewitt was successful in getting a non-binding resolution passed urging and requesting government officials to dismiss the active suits. That same year, she co-authored a bill that would have hindered the lawsuits from moving forward and voted for a second bill with the same intent, but neither passed. 

St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis, who changed his political affiliation from independent to Republican in February, said Hewitt and other state officials shouldn’t be introducing legislation that he argues binds locals’ hands.

“Let us represent the people we represent,” he said. “We don’t represent industries. We represent the people we serve in our community.”

Even within parish governments there have been splits over the lawsuits, as oil and gas lobbyists have pressured local officials.

In Terrebonne Parish, the district attorney, Joseph Waitz Jr., filed a lawsuit against oil and gas companies in 2019, even though the parish president, Gordy Dove, opposed that lawsuit. Dove sued Waitz to stop the lawsuit, and a court sided with him.

Emails obtained by Floodlight show that Dove was being lobbied by Melissa Landry, who was at the time a spokesperson for several of the oil and gas companies being sued for wetland damage. She was also affiliated with FTI Consulting, a fossil fuel consulting firm known for faking grass-root support for fossil fuel projects and keeping tabs on environmental activists.

Landry in an email in March 2020 asked Dove to support Hewitt’s proposed legislation to kill the lawsuits and to testify in favor of it. Landry said in an email to Floodlight that she no longer works for FTI Consulting or the oil companies fighting the lawsuits. Dove did not return requests for comment.

So far, only one parish lawsuit over oil and gas damages to wetlands has been resolved. In 2019, a mining company that produced oil along the coast signed a $100 million settlement that will be used for flood protection and wetland restoration projects.

Hewitt this year has continued to propose legislation to help the industry, including a new bill that would prohibit state agencies from regulating carbon emissions without legislative approval. Environment groups have argued that the bill is a sign the federal government shouldn’t give Louisiana authority to oversee carbon capture projects on its own.

Jonathan Leo, an environmental attorney based in Baton Rouge, said conflicts of interest such as Hewitt’s that have been left unchecked can have severe consequences.

“The people who are most harmed by it are the ones who have been oppressed the longest.”

*Clarification: The bills Hewitt co-sponsored benefited a company her husband has received royalties from and a company that employs him. But available records do not prove that the bills would result in a definite direct financial benefit for the Hewitt family. (May 9, 2022)