Updated 2/22/2019: On February 21, after over two hours of testimony mostly against Entergy’s proposed gas plant, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to let the company keep its permit despite the paid actors scandal, clearing the way for the project to proceed.
Sparks flew at a New Orleans City Council’s utility committee meeting on Valentine’s Day, compelling the committee to delay voting on a resolution that would scrap plans to rescind the permit for Entergy’s proposed $210 million natural gas power plant in exchange for a $5 million fine.
The contentious permit was awarded to Entergy, which provides power to the city, on March 18, 2018, but the city council's third-party investigation of Entergy found the allegations that the company took part in an astroturf campaign to influence the vote for its proposed New Orleans East gas plant to be true. The investigation concluded that the company was responsible for hiring paid actors, who were wearing t-shirts supporting the plant, to fill council chambers and speak in support of the project.
Opponents, including neighborhood groups and environmental activists, found out that the resolution to rescind the permit was pulled only a few days before the meeting. In its place, the committee would vote on a resolution allowing the permit to stand — with added guidelines and a $5 million fine that would be turned over to the city’s Sewer and Water Board for needed upgrades.
Opponents to Entergy’s gas plant holding up protest signs at the February 14 meeting.
Councilmember Helena Moreno listening intently at the February 14 meeting.
Councilmember Helena Moreno, the committee’s chairperson, tried to let down opponents of the power plant gently at the start of the meeting. She commended them for their efforts, saying their work played a role in the committee coming up with the new resolution that she believes offers the best outcome for the city.
Moreno hailed Los Angles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s recent announcement that, in its move to shift entirely to renewable energy, the city will close three gas power plants, but she pointed out that the plants would operate for another decade. And while the committee is committed to moving toward renewable energy, New Orleans needs a solution for peak-demand outages now, she explained, saying Entergy’s proposed plant is the best solution available. Her statement drew heckling and led to over four hours of testimony, mostly against the plant.
Entergy New Orleans CEO David D. Ellis at his first public meeting in New Orleans, where he recently took the helm.
Representatives from the Sewer and Water Board of New Orleans and Entergy New Orleans, including its new CEO, David D. Ellis, welcomed the resolution. However, though Entergy dropped its initial objection to paying a $5 million fine for its role in the paid actor scandal, Entergy’s general counsel, Marcus Brown, asked to have the words “sanctions” and “penalties” removed from the resolution and replace with “actions.” His request drew ire from Moreno, who made it clear she had no intention of changing a word in the resolution.
Before the floor was opened for public comments, Councilmember Jay Banks further outraged opponents of the plant, accusing some of fear-mongering over potential health concerns and clarifying his controversial remarks that they allegedly had raised concerns about “three-headed babies.”
Ashley Walker of 350 New Orleans addressing Councilmember Banks at the February 14 Utility Committee meeting.
Ashley Walker, a member of the climate activist group 350 New Orleans, shamed him for criticizing pregnant mothers with real concerns. She cited studies that show emissions from natural gas facilities can be detrimental to health, and challenged him to point to a scientific study that says otherwise. He had mentioned Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality records concluding the proposed plant would have minimal emissions.
Logan Burke, executive director of the advocacy group Alliance for Affordable Energy, criticized the committee for failing to fully consider alternative energy solutions. The Alliance for Affordable Energy provided a report from the California consultant Strategen, which claimed that solar and other technologies could supplant the proposed 128-megawatt fossil fuel plant.
New Orleans resident Robert Sullivan reminded the committee that choosing a gas plant over renewable energy options flies in the face of the Paris Climate Accord, which the mayor has publicly supported.
Some opponents compared the committee’s failure to rescind the permit to the NFL officials' blown call during the January 20 New Orleans Saints game against the Los Angeles Rams. A “no call” on a blatant penalty arguably robbed the Saints of its chance to compete in the Super Bowl. They threw symbolic penalty flags throughout the meeting to make the point that New Orleans residents can’t afford another bad call.
Many opponents called out the committee for pulling the promised resolution to vacate the permit — a move introduced a couple months after the city council's third-party investigation of Entergy. They said the $5 million fine is a separate issue and should not be combined with the resolution about the permit.
Opponents to Entergy’s gas plant holding up protest signs at the February 14 New Orleans City Council's utilities committee meeting.
Happy Johnson speaking to the city council's utilities committee.
Others reminded the committee that, as regulators of Entergy, it needed to hold the company accountable. Happy Johnson, author and humanitarian, said: “If this committee values real public input, then your best recourse is to repeal the previous vote and hold a new hearing.”
“If you do what is right for the people, we will stand with you,” he said. The crowd chanted “Do your job” as Johnson took his seat.
Several members of New Orleans East’s Vietnamese community that live in close proximity to the proposed plant’s site, pleaded for the committee to rescind the permit. “Sometimes I wonder what we even come to these public hearings for,” said Mark Nguyen, speaking on behalf of VAYLA, the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans. “All we want is a fair process.”
Monique Harden, with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, asked the committee not vote until February 21, when the full city council is scheduled to meet — and took them to task. “You have taken the occasion of Valentine's Day to give Entergy a sweetheart deal,” she said.
Harden is a participant in a lawsuit against the city council that seeks to vacate the plant’s approval. The suit challenges the validity of Entergy’s gas plant proposal, and accuses the council's team of regulatory advisers of having “conflicting roles” during the approval process.
The lawsuit, which Harden agreed to put on hold in January when the city council said it would put forth a resolution to rescind the permit, made clear the suit would go forward in light of the committee’s about-face after bringing up a potential conflict of interest Councilmember Jay Banks failed to disclose.
She and other opponents wanted all the council members, rather than just the utility committee, take a public stance on the plant’s future because this decision will have consequences for the city for decades to come.
In the end, the committee relented and agreed not to vote on the resolution until the next full council meeting the following week.
Main image: Opponents of Entergy’s proposed natural gas plant packed the February 14 New Orleans City Council's utility committee meeting.