Community Uprisings Against Dirty Energy Spread to New Orleans

With help from Earthjustice, New Orleans East communities are fighting a controversial gas-fired power plant proposal.

Pat Bryant, left, leads a march against environmental racism and Entergy’s proposed New Orleans East gas plant on March 3, 2018.
Pat Bryant, left, leads a march against environmental racism and Entergy’s proposed New Orleans East gas plant on March 3, 2018. (Courtesy of Julie Dermansky)

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Despite vocal community opposition and a growing nationwide shift toward clean energy, the New Orleans City Council, in a 6-1 vote, recently gave the green light to a controversial gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East, an area made up of predominantly Vietnamese, African-American and Latino communities.

With estimated emissions of 358,561 tons of greenhouse gases every year for its 30-year lifespan — equal to the annual emissions of 76,780 passenger cars — the $210 million plant has been the target of vehement opposition since Entergy New Orleans first proposed it almost two years ago.

Fortunately, the city council’s vote is far from the end of the story.

With help from Earthjustice, New Orleans East communities have filed two lawsuits. One asks a judge to require the council to reverse its decision, make changes to a flawed decision-making process and, ultimately, hold a new hearing that takes into consideration viable clean energy alternatives to the plant. The other calls the New Orleans City Council out for serious violations of both the Louisiana Constitution and the Open Meetings Law, which ensures that the state’s public bodies maintain open and transparent processes.

“A locked door is the antithesis of an open meeting, but that’s what people faced when they arrived at the Council’s Utilities Committee meeting,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, founding directory of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “Councilmembers, who are elected by residents, should want to hear from them on decisions that affect our city.”

Instead, doors to the committee’s meeting room were locked on Feb. 21 before its discussion of the plant proposal started. Security guards blocked approximately 100 New Orleans East residents from entering, leaving them to wait in the hall. They were unable to provide public comment, and the committee voted to approve the proposal.

Community members were also blocked from attending a city council meeting to grant the project final approval on March 8. Now they’re going to court to make sure their voices can be heard.

“It’s time to break the cycle,” Wright told a local TV station. “The cycle of continuing to put dirty, nasty, polluting facilities in the neighborhood of minorities and poor people.”

This story of communities fighting for their right to clean power isn’t just happening in New Orleans.

New Orleans East activists are part of a growing nationwide movement to break the cycle of fossil fuel injustice, as communities across the country stand up to Big Utility and demand a future powered by clean energy. And it’s a fight that communities are winning.

In Oxnard, California, residents recently won a four-year battle to shut down a proposal to build a gas-fired power plant in a community where predominantly low-income, immigrant residents have some of the worst asthma rates in the country. Led by local youth, with help from Earthjustice attorney Matt Vespa on behalf of the Sierra Club, residents turned what began as an uphill battle against fossil fuel giant NRG Energy into a successful movement to stop a 262-megawatt gas plant on Oxnard’s iconic Pacific Coast — and launch an era of clean energy solutions for communities throughout the Golden State.

“We’ve seen in California that when communities ask why they can’t have clean energy solutions instead of a new dirty power project, utilities don’t have any good excuses left,” said Matt Vespa. “Now we are working with communities in the rest of the country to challenge the faulty logic of building more fossil fuel power plants.”

In Glendale, California, the city council just voted to hit the brakes on a proposed $500 million gas-fired power plant — which would have been built near two elementary schools — and instead study its clean energy options.

“No community in California wants to see a new gas plant built — those dirty fossil fuel days are behind us,” said Angela Johnson Meszaros, an Earthjustice attorney fighting the local utility’s plans for the dirty gas-fired plant. In the fight against the proposed 262-megawatt plant, the Glendale community successfully packed public hearing after hearing.

Change is coming to Pueblo, Colorado, where residents are tired of paying soaring electrical bills to Black Hills Energy. Right now, City Councilman Larry Atencio is leading an effort to find a solution to high energy prices while transitioning the former industrial powerhouse to a community run solely on renewable electricity by 2035.

The U.S. is undergoing a major transition off fossil fuels to clean energy sources for electricity. A measure of that change can be seen in the 29 states that have enacted mandatory goals to source a certain percentage of their power from renewable energy by a given date.

Unfortunately, Louisiana isn’t one of those states. While the Louisiana Public Service Commission did create a renewable energy pilot program in 2010, which required the state’s utilities to research the viability of renewable energy sources for electricity, the program was shuttered in 2013.

Recently, New Orleans, a city known as ground zero for climate change, appeared to be working to become a clean energy leader. Last summer, then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled the city’s forward-thinking Climate Action Plan, a roadmap for the city to reduce its carbon pollution 50 percent by 2030, which includes a plan for a modern, clean electricity system.

Excited to announce Climate Action for a Resilient New Orleans! Our City’s first Climate Action Strategy!!

— Mitch Landrieu (@MayorLandrieu) July 7, 2017

Entergy’s proposed gas-fired plant is decidedly a step backward.

However, local activists are heartened by the fact that some city leaders see past Entergy claims that a dirty gas-fired plant is the only way to address the city’s well-known reliability problems.

“New Orleans does have a need for safe, reliable power. But Entergy’s own data has shown that the majority of their reliability problems are caused by issues with the distribution system,” said Earthjustice attorney Susan Stevens Miller, who has been representing the New Orleans East residents. “Their proposed gas plant won’t even begin to solve the existing problems. The city council needs to work to find solutions that don’t sacrifice the health and safety of New Orleans East communities — while taking more money out of the pockets of ratepayers.”

In fact, Entergy failed to explore other options. And the city council, which acts as the city’s utility regulator, was advised by consultants who, during the deliberation process, acted as both the judge and the defense. When they presented their advice to the council, in the form of a decision to approve Entergy’s proposal, that decision was almost exactly the same as the position they advocated as the defacto defense.

What’s more, these consultants advocated for the gas plant proposal from the beginning — and against upgrades to the city’s transmission and distribution system, even after Entergy’s own data concluded that 98 percent of all outages since 2011 have been caused by problems with the distribution system. These same consultants also refused to discuss a little-known deal made in 2015 between Entergy and the city council to build a new plant in New Orleans East.

As councilwoman Susan Guidry, the one “no” vote against the proposed plant, pointed out, the cost of building the plant will be borne by customers. “And Entergy will get a profit from building it and will have no risk,” she told New Orleans news website The Lens. “That’s pretty attractive for a company that’s about making profits.”

Emilie has spent the past two decades as a journalist, speechwriter and communications strategist in Washington, D.C. At Earthjustice, she shares the stories of the people and issues at the heart of our clean energy litigation and policy work.

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