More than 300 people were evacuated from their homes and 49 hospitalized when a carbon dioxide pipeline run by an oil and gas company ruptured in a rural community in Mississippi. People were described as wandering around “like zombies” in the aftermath of the February 2020 incident.
Less than a week later, Sharon Hewitt, a Louisiana state senator who has considered running for governor, filed a bill drafted by the operator of that pipeline, Denbury Resources, into her own state’s legislature.
The law, passed in 2020, could make it more difficult for Louisiana landowners to dispute 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, Stan, earned up to $4,999 in royalties from Denbury, according to Hewitt’s 2020 financial disclosure statement.
There have been other instances when Sharon Hewitt, who previously worked at Shell, has pushed for laws that would benefit her husband’s company, according to public records shared with Floodlight.
Stan Hewitt has worked as an engineer for nearly a decade at LLOG Exploration. The firm is among more than 200 oil and gas companies that are embroiled in lawsuits brought by seven parishes, including New Orleans, over damage to Louisiana’s wetlands, which protect coastal communities from storms and store carbon – the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change.
Hewitt sponsored two bills and one resolution aimed at negating 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 four other pieces of legislation that would benefit the oil company her husband works for or his fossil fuel investments.
Sharon Hewitt, her husband, Stan, and Denbury Resources, which is now called Denbury Inc, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“It’s so brazenly personal,” 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 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 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 problems.
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 named 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 of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), a non-profit focused on strengthening laws to protect the environment and human health.
A profile of Sharon Hewitt on her website says she “consistently advocates for smaller government, less taxes, fewer frivolous lawsuits, and better jobs”.
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 taskforce. At least nine projects have been announced in Louisiana that would involve building carbon capture technology on new or existing facilities.
The technology allows fossil fuel firms to avoid strictly reducing their emissions and will require building out of thousands of miles of pipelines nationwide. 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 $12bn towards 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, transported through pipelines and stored underground. More often it’s used to force more oil out of the ground – called enhanced oil recovery – resulting in increased oil production and continuing the dirty emissions cycle.
Hewitt’s 2020 legislation essentially removed landowners in the path of carbon capture pipelines from the list of 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”.
“It’s unsurprising that a major CO2 pipeline operator would delete pipelines from the eminent domain processes,” Carroll Muffett of CIEL 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 of them 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.