On February 21, the New Orleans City Council unanimously voted to uphold approval of Entergy’s proposed natural gas power plant, which faces a growing number of lawsuits, and passed a resolution to impose a $5 million fine on the company for its role in a paid-actors scandal.
Before the vote, in nearly three hours of often emotional testimony mostly against the plant, many contended that the $5 million fine was not a sufficient punishment. This was in light of the council’s commissioned investigation, which concluded the company “knew or should have known” that a subcontractor was paying actors to support its proposed power plant at council meetings.
Opponents called for the contentious project’s permitting process to start again, in the interest of fairness, and questioned the council’s integrity, given several members’ past ties to Entergy.
Members of a coalition against the plant, including residents from New Orleans East, where the plant is slated for construction, community activists, and environmental justice groups, argued that the council had yet to make its case the gas-powered plant was needed in the first place.
New Orleans regulates its own utilities, giving the City Council direct oversight of Entergy, the company that provides power to the city. The council’s advisors, consultants from the D.C.-based utility law firm Dentons US LLP, concluded the project, which would provide electricity during peak use, was in the city’s best interest.
“The council decision is corrupted by the influence that Entergy and the advisors have on members,” Monique Harden, assistant director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said via email after the meeting. “It is shocking that Entergy and the advisors can make a side deal for a peaking gas plant and ram it through to approval by the council without any concern for the serious health, safety, and flood risks the gas plant would have on New Orleans East residents, and no demonstration of need, evaluation of alternative options, or meaningful ratepayer protections.”
Legal Challenges to Entergy Gas Plant
During the council meeting, Harden said that her organization and the Alliance for Affordable Energy had filed a lawsuit the day before against the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), challenging an air quality permit the agency renewed for Entergy on February 1. The lawsuit seeks to revoke the “unlawful permit and seeks injunctive relief.”
The lawsuit asserts that the challenged permit would allow Entergy’s gas plant to release more than 1 million pounds of toxic air pollution and more than 1.5 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.
Furthermore, the suit claims DEQ should not have renewed Entergy’s permit because the company submitted its application to renew 18 months before it expired, but later substantially changed the application. The lawsuit argues that the changes are significant enough that Entergy should have submitted an entirely new application. In addition, because the changes were made a month after the deadline for new applications, the permit should have been denied.
Councilmembers Kristin Palmer, Jay Banks, and Joseph Giarrusso speak among themselves while a member of the public speaks to the council.
Beverly Wright, executive director of Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, speaking at the city council meeting.
At a February 14 meeting, Councilmember Jay Banks, who backs the project, cited DEQ’s assertion [zip, 13 MB] that the plant would not have adverse health impacts on the New Orleans East community when he voiced support for the council’s decision to grant Entergy’s air quality permit renewal application.
Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, challenged DEQ’s assertions, saying, “We don’t have enough information to move forward on this.” She reminded the council that the “DEQ is the entity that brought us ‘Cancer Alley,’” the 85-mile industrial corridor stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that is home to a large portion of the nation’s petrochemical production.
Wright and Harden were among a chorus of voices that challenged the city council’s reliance on advisors who favored Entergy’s project instead of investigating alternative solutions. Wright challenged the council to impose length-of-contract limits on its advisors. For example, Clint Vince, lead attorney for Dentons US LLP, has advised the council for 30 years. “Thirty years is a long time,” Wright said. “The advisors at this point have failed us and, speaking as a college professor, they would get an 'F' at this point.”
New Orleans City Council Ties to Entergy
“We cannot ignore the atmosphere of illegitimacy in this process that goes beyond Entergy's use of paid actors,” Harden said at the meeting. She pointed out various potential conflicts of interest between councilmembers and Entergy.
Councilmembers Banks and Cyndi Nguyen acknowledged their prior connections with Entergy after potential conflicts of interest had come to light. Banks admitted that he worked for Entergy as a governmental relations consultant a decade ago and Nguyen acknowledged accepting money from Entergy while running a nonprofit. But neither heeded the call made by opponents for them to recuse themselves from the vote.
Others testifying also complained about regulatory capture, which refers to a regulatory agency meant to act in the public interest instead advancing the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry it is charged with regulating.
“When we talk about immorality, we must talk about how sitting councilmembers have been in the pockets of Entergy at one time or another,” Rev. Gregory Manning said, admonishing the council before using his public comment time to lead a prayer.
The Lens, an investigative news site, reported that the majority of the council has either worked for Entergy or received campaign donations from their political action committee, ENPAC Louisiana:
“Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen’s non-profit, the Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training, received at least $27,625 in grants and payments from Entergy between 2016 and 2018. Some of those payments were for work done on Entergy’s campaign to gain approval for the power plant. Helena Moreno received $4,250 from ENPAC from 2010 to 2014, while she was in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Jared Brossett received $3,250 between 2009 and 2013, while he was in the state House of Representatives.”
Opponents Question Gas Plant’s Need and Impacts
Some at the city council meeting reiterated that the proposed plant won’t fix New Orleans’ energy reliability issues. Instead, they said, Entergy needs to fix the deteriorating transmission and distribution system that has caused thousands of power outages.
Renate Heurich stands in prayer with members of the Vietnamese community from New Orleans East at the New Orleans City Council meeting February 21.
Renate Heurich, a member of the climate activist group 350 New Orleans, told the council that its notion that natural gas is a “clean energy” source was wrong.
Recent reports, including a 2018 study in the peer-reviewed journal Science, show that leaks of the powerful greenhouse gas methane throughout the natural gas supply chain are much higher than previously estimated, effectively wiping out almost any climate advantage over coal.
Echoing a growing number of youth concerned about climate change worldwide, high school student Ella Stolier asked the council if they were really listening. She wondered how the council could vote for a project despite being presented with facts about how their decision would be detrimental to not only the city, but the planet as well. “I fear for my generation and all of those to come, that they will grow up facing the consequences of this travesty,” she told them.
Though the council’s ultimate decision gave Entergy a green light, the battle against the plant is not over. Next, the battleground moves from city hall to the courthouse, where multiple legal challenges already are pending.
Main image: Larry J. Morgan, a New Orleans resident who opposes Entergy’s gas plant, holds up an American flag after he speaks to the city council at the February 21 meeting. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog