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Aftermath of Climate Disasters Looms Large in Louisiana Runoff Election

On December 10, a three-term incumbent utility regulator faces a challenger backed by a people-powered movement.

Flood waters are seen in Norco, Louisiana, on August 30, 2021, after Hurricane Ida made landfall.

Not everyone who cares about high utility bills and housing insecurity is concerned with land subsidence, seawater rise and losing their earthly home. But in Louisiana, advocates for workers, tenants, ratepayers, climate and faith communities have identified a common identity to align their constituencies’ interests: All of them are ratepayers, already squeezed to the limit and bracing for worse this winter, while greenhouse gas emissions are at an all-time high.

A runoff election for a seat representing Louisiana Public Service Commission (LPSC) District 3, a geographically small district that runs from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and through the “Cancer Alley” river parishes, is galvanizing coalition-building efforts. The LPSC determines utility rates throughout Louisiana (except within New Orleans city limits, where utilities are regulated by its city council) and oversees the state’s water, gas, telecommunication and intrastate transportation matters. An explainer on its powers and capacities published by the Alliance for Affordable Energy suggests that the commission has the power to reduce bills, increase energy efficiency, stop shutoffs, cut phone charges to incarcerated Louisianans, mandate repair and investment in the grid’s infrastructure, and require good-faith participation in regional transmission planning.

The LPSC also has the authority to push the 13 utilities it currently regulates to commit to increased generation from solar, wind, hydro or geothermal heat. It can codify targets in a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that prescribes how much of each and by when. It can also restore “net metering,” which was gutted by the LPSC in 2019. Bringing net metering back would allow ratepayers who install solar panels at their dwellings or businesses to sell their excess kilowatts back to the grid, thereby reinvigorating the state’s solar power workforce.

Davante Lewis, a 30-year-old state budget expert from Baton Rouge, has emerged from a bipartisan primary race as the standard bearer for a growing movement of empowered ratepayers organizing to prioritize Louisianans’ energy needs over Wall Street’s profits. Incumbent Lambert Boissiere III earned only 43 percent of the primary vote alongside endorsements from the state’s top Democrats, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Rep. Troy Carter. Lewis, who came in second, has received the backing of groups including Step Up for Action, Sunrise New Orleans and the Alliance for Good Government. As the December 10 election approaches, Boissiere’s campaign reported $190,000 in contributions in the period from November 30 through December 2; the funds were collected from individuals, but also from utilities, telecommunication firms, and other businesses regulated by the LPSC. Over the same three days, the Lewis campaign took in $15,500 from individuals and the Clean and Prosperous America PAC.

The topic of campaign contributions has been a source of friction between the two contenders. On October 14, Lewis demanded that his opponent terminate his candidacy and resign his commission for taking campaign contributions from Entergy and Cleco, the two largest monopoly utilities operating in the state. Shares in both corporations are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Lewis’s supporters say the runoff pits a fiscal advocate with bold policy solutions against an entrenched incumbent incentivized to bow to the utilities’ wishes. They point to Entergy’s recent dividend raise to its shareholders as a slap in the face to ratepayers who pay more and more for a grid that routinely fails them.

The Momentum for a Challenger Has Been Building

Though its slow-moving eye and howling, hellish winds have long abated, Hurricane Ida’s specter hovers over this rare LPSC runoff election. On August 29, 2021, the Category 4 storm crashed the grid in the greater New Orleans metro area and devastated homes in St. James and St. John’s Parishes to the west. Fifteen months later, many residents are still living in FEMA trailers parked outside tarp-covered homes moldering in disrepair.

As lethal as the storm proved to be on its deadly path through eight states, in Louisiana, 19 of the state’s 26 storm-related fatalities occurred afterward during Entergy’s prolonged power outage. All of its eight transmission lines went down and a rusted 400-foot transmission tower spectacularly collapsed on the bank of the Mississippi River in Orleans Parish. The coroner listed the victims’ causes of death as excessive heat during an extended power outage, carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly ventilated generators used during the outage and lack of O2 for respiratory patients during the power outage. Many of those who died were found in an abandoned senior center. Its owner operator has since lost his licenses.

On September 24, 2021 — less than a month after the hurricane hit — the statewide eviction ban put in place under the COVID emergency orders expired. By April 2022, statewide evictions were averaging 470 cases a month. In his capacity as organizing and community engagement manager at Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative in New Orleans, Y. Frank Southall talks with stressed-out tenants most days either in person or on their tenant’s hotline, available in English and Spanish.

“During this time of year, they’re having to make decisions: whether they keep the lights on, or pay their rent, or have Christmas, or put gas in their car,” Southall told Truthout.

A six-month study of Orleans Parish eviction court conducted from September 2019 to March 2020 by Jane Place court monitors found that renters were already housing-burdened, and warned of the cascading negative effects these high bills can have on a struggling household:

Fifty-three percent of all households in Orleans Parish are renters, with 59% of Black residents renting their homes. Many are housing cost-burdened, with Black households comprising 80% of all housing cost-burdened families. With 71% of all Black households earning less than a living wage, many are vulnerable to housing insecurity due to any economic shock or setback.

In June, bills started arriving with storm restoration and fuel charges, sending ratepayers reeling. Entergy had already begun passing along the costs of $8 billion in storm repairs to its customers. Plus, the utility’s reliance on natural gas as a source of energy generation has put ratepayers on the wrong side of increasing fuel costs.

“Finally the chickens are coming home to roost for the fact that we are heavily invested in gas-fired generation,” said utility consumer advocate Logan Atkinson. “When the cost of gas went up internationally, that exposure is showing up now on our bills.”

Climate Inaction and False Solutions Are on Offer

In February, the Louisiana governor’s Climate Initiative Task Force released its Climate Action Plan reflecting a climate policy agenda wholly captured by monied interests that promote market-based solutions. The plan is chockfull of carbon capture fantasies, carbon credit offsets and the junk rhetoric of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In mid-November, a failed COP27 conference convened in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, around the same time that researchers released a new modeling of global sea rise. Projected maps of the Louisiana coastline at 2050 are significantly inland, which signals the displacement of potentially hundreds of thousands of Louisianans and the destruction of key industries, such as shrimping and exports from two of the nation’s busiest ports — Port of South Louisiana and Port of Louisiana.

In May 2021, five youth activists from the Sunrise Movement trekked from New Orleans through the river parishes 400 miles to Houston to publicize their demand for a $10 trillion investment over 10 years for climate mitigation. On August 16, 2022, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that provides a fraction of that amount. Much of the IRA supports greenwashing boondoggles and allows new oil and gas leasing off Louisiana’s coast.

“It’s now abundantly clear that we also have to be working on adaptation, which also includes regulators,” Logan Burke, the executive director of the Louisiana-based group Alliance for Affordable Energy, told Truthout. “So very often I feel like the conversation about adaptation is about our people moving elsewhere, or raising their homes, or ‘how are we gonna manage the water?’ and so forth. But our energy systems have got to adapt, and have to be responsive to people’s needs. And the only way that happens is because regulators are requiring it.”

“In Louisiana, I can’t sit here and tell you where I think the coastline is going to be,” she said, “but regulators have to be thinking about it and including that kind of research in their decision making.”

Lewis told Truthout that he got in the race because of Hurricane Ida. He was living in District 3, the hardest hit, and remembers Boissiere as “notoriously silent in the press.”

“There was no outreach, there was no community engagement, no conversations, especially about that [transmission] tower that fell in Orleans, and so I was kind of trying to figure out like, what is going on here?”

But it was the high utility bills that pushed him over the top.

“I really got to a point of saying, ‘this is not sustainable for our future. Somebody has to do something about it,’” he said.

He has developed a Ratepayer Bill of Rights “to end service disconnections, provide a fixed billing system for senior citizens, ban excessive late fees and strengthen the cap on the maximum profit that investor owned utilities companies can extract from their customers.” Voters seeking a similar clarity on the specifics of his climate platform, however, may go wanting. In a November 30 runoff debate, Lewis said his first priority, if elected, would be to establish a renewable portfolio standard to “accomplish Gov. John Bel Edwards’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.”

But that is a misstatement of the governor’s goal. Edwards consistently states his goal as “net zero emissions by 2050” and does not promote a RPS. Lewis’s statement went unchallenged.

Lewis’s platform, as it appears on his website, says he “will ensure that the[Public Service Commission] takes a leading role in meeting the Louisiana Climate Action Plan’s goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2035.” But that, too, is a misstatement: The action plan’s goal as written on page 44 is to “establish a[Renewable and Clean Portfolio Standard of] 100% renewable or clean by 2035, at least 80% from renewable sources … to qualify as clean energy, power generation facilities reliant on carbon capture technology, should capture at least 90% of facility emissions,” etc.

A recent analysis in The Washington Post highlighted his position: “Lewis has called for Louisiana to adopt a renewable portfolio standard that would require utilities to reach net-zero emissions by 2035. That’s in line with President Biden’s aggressive goal of 100 percent clean electricity nationwide by 2035, as well as a net-zero plan from Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).”

While those statements went uncorrected by the Lewis campaign, his climate supporters seem unconcerned with the semantics of the verbiage that gets bandied about in the high-speed winds of Louisiana climate politics. Both Sunrise New Orleans and the Sierra Club Delta Chapter are actively canvassing, phonebanking, contributing and promoting his campaign in the street and on social media, and productively building a movement beyond any one election.

“The generations are uniting in this one event,” he said about his race. “Our elderly cannot afford to have these radically changing prices in their utility bills, and I remind people that those under those under 30 have lived through two economic collapses. I would say that no generation is going to be affected by climate change more than millennials, and now the growing Gen Z.”

By way of clarification on the specifics of his climate platform, Lewis wasn’t too keen on the current focus on “net zero” as a solution.

“Net zero is a fool’s gold for the real conversation of what this movement needs to be, which is getting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035,” he said.

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