Company Behind Proposed Natural Gas Power Plant in New Orleans Tied to Astroturfing Campaign

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Protesting Entergy's New Orleans natural gas power plant

Entergy New Orleans, the company that recently won approval to build a controversial $210 million natural gas power plant in the city, confirmed that actors were paid to show support for this project at public meetings. Though Entergy claims it was unaware of the situation, a public relations firm it hired had paid freelance actors to testify in favor of the project at public meetings. 

On May 10, Entergy released its finding from an internal investigation revealing that the public affairs firm The Hawthorn Group, which it hired to organize “grassroots support” for the natural gas power plant, in fact paid actors to voice and show support for the plant. The Hawthorn Group in turn hired a company called Crowds on Demand to “pay individuals that it recruited to appear and/or speak at those two meetings.”

This activity was undertaken without our knowledge or approval, and I can say unequivocally that it would not have been approved had we known,” Entergy General Counsel Marcus Brown said in a statement. “We do, however, recognize that we ultimately are responsible for the actions of those who act on our behalf, and we are taking immediate steps to prevent a similar situation from happening again.”

Earlier this week, The Lens, an investigative journalism site, reported that actors were paid $60 to show up at the meetings, and up to $200 to read a statement at two recent public meetings when critical votes regarding the plant were held.

At one meeting in October last year, 50 people wearing orange shirts that read “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power” filled seats in an auditorium, preventing many residents who oppose the project from getting into the room. Entergy plans to build the natural gas power plant in New Orleans East, which is home to majority African-American and Vietnamese communities, raising concerns of environmental racism. Proponents claim the plant would address New Orleans’ energy outage issues, while critics say they could be solved for less money by fixing the city’s ailing transmission system.

The Lens reported that the actors had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and were instructed not to speak to the media or tell anyone they were being paid to attend.

Before the admission, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of opponents of the power plant, including members of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the Sierra Club, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and 350 New Orleans, in order to void the actions taken at the two meetings, one a city council meeting and another a utility commission meeting.

The opponents also sent a letter to the Louisiana Attorney General, Buddy Landry, calling for an investigation into who paid for the fake participants, and possible legal and ethical violations. 

Renate Heurich of 350 New Orleans testifying against Entergy's natural gas plant
Renate Heurich of 350 New Orleans testifying against the gas power plant on March 8, 2018.

Renate Heurich of 350 New Orleans doesn’t believe Entergy didn’t know the company’s money was going to paid actors at the public meetings. “I think the corruption goes much deeper than that,” she told me. “Why else would anyone on the council vote ‘yes’ on a project that has no value for the residents of New Orleans?” 

At the March council meeting before the vote for the plant was held, Heurich pleaded with the council not to invest in a fossil fuel infrastructure project in a city already plagued by the effects of climate change. “The vote for the plant, clearly wasn’t based on logic,” Heurich said. “The only one who benefits is Entergy.

Astroturfing — secretly paying for efforts to create the illusion of grassroots support — is nothing new, but proving a company like Entergy may be involved can be challenging. 

Hawthorn, however, has a history of astroturf campaigns on behalf of the energy industry, as pointed out by the Energy and Policy Institute. In 2009, the company, paid by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, hired a subcontractor to create the illusion of grassroots support against climate change legislation, which involved forging letters from minority groups such as NAACP’s Charlottesville chapter. And sometimes paid support can take another form — such as the fact that Entergy's foundation donated more than a million dollars to at least nine charitable organizations that testified on the plant's behalf, without always disclosing those donations, at the same public meetings now under scrutiny.*

Brendan DeMelle, DeSmog’s executive director, wrote about a 2014 astroturf effort made by communications firm Edelman on behalf of TransCanada for the Energy East tar sands export pipeline (a project ultimately killed in 2017). Documents obtained by Greenpeace outline a “grassroots advocacy” campaign plan to build support for TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, as well as to undermine public opposition to oil and pipelines generally.

Entergy’s claim that it didn’t know about the astroturfing effort made on its behalf sounded disingenuous to members of the coalition against the plant whom I spoke with after Entergy released its findings.

Happy Johnson testifies against Entergy's proposed natural gas power plant in New Orleans East
Happy Johnson testifying at a New Orleans City Council Meeting against Entergy’s proposed natural gas power plant.

Happy Johnson, author and humanitarian and an outspoken opponent to the gas plant, hopes in light of Entergy’s admission the permit will be reconsidered. According to Johnson, at the next council meeting on May 24, opponents plan to make their case to the newly seated city council that the permit needs to be revoked. “With this kind of trickery, I hope the new council will do the right thing and take another look,” Johnson said.

*Updated 5/11/2018 to reflect Hawthorn's past astroturf efforts and Entergy's donations to nonprofits testifying on its behalf.

Main image: Members of the New Orleans East Vietnamese community waiting to get into the New Orleans City Council meeting on March 8. Credit: Julie Dermansky

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