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Outrage and Outages

Following the revelation that a subcontractor for utility giant Entergy had paid actors to support its bid for a controversial new power plant in New Orleans, the company now finds itself in a public relations meltdown.

Publisher’s Note: For the past two decades, the New Orleans-based writer, photojournalist, and artist Julie Dermansky has documented the impacts of climate change here on the Louisiana Gulf Coast and across the planet. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, The Daily Beast, and dozens of other national and international publications. She is a former recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and last year, her photograph “Reflections on the Flood” was honored by the New York Press Association as the Best Photo Feature on the Internet. 

We are proud to share her recent report for the online publication Desmogblog, originally titled “Under Scrutiny for Astroturfing Campaign, Entergy Takes Heat for Missed Clean Energy Goals and Power Outages.” 

At a June 28th meeting, New Orleans regulators put the city’s public utility Entergy in the hot seat over increasing power outages and slow progress on clean energy goals. City councilmembers showed little patience for the embattled company, which currently is under investigation for its role in paying actors to show support for its proposed $210 million natural gas power plant, approved by the council on March 8th.

Arguments for approving the controversial natural gas plant included the dubious claim that it would offer more reliable electricity for the city, although the project would not include upgrades to the faulty power grid. In addition, a recent study found that oil and gas infrastructure like this plant are leaking 60 percent more globe-warming methane than previously thought, boosting the climate change impact of natural gas.

Over a dozen representatives from Entergy were on hand to explain both rising power disruptions, even on fair-weather days, and its sluggish pace toward investing in renewable energy, since the utility first made the promise in 2016 to produce 20 megawatts (MW) of it for Orleans Parish and bumped that goal to 100 MW in 2017.

Those representatives revealed that the energy company had pulled about $1 million from a repair fund for power lines and poles five years ago, when the system was performing well. Since then, the company has attributed between 73 and 81 percent of power outages to broken equipment.

Entergy Representatives taking heat at a contentious utilities committee meeting

Entergy representatives taking heat at a contentious utilities committee meeting on June 28th.

At the June 28 meeting, Entergy also revealed that its 20 MW solar project was on the rocks because the company it had subcontracted no longer was committed to the work. To date, only five MW of solar capacity have been approved, in the form of solar panels that will line city rooftops.

Calls to Reverse Gas Plant Approval

City council’s Utility, Cable, Telecommunications, and Technology Committee, tasked with regulating the city’s utilities, were visibly frustrated by Entergy’s answers at the meeting. The committee is grappling with requests to rescind its March 8th decision to approve Entergy’s natural gas plant after investigative reporting by The Lens exposed that the company’s public relations firm had recruited paid actors to pack public meetings in support of the project.

Councilmember-at-Large Helena Moreno leading the questioning of Entergy representatives at the June 28 utilities committee meeting.

Councilmember-at-Large Helena Moreno leading the questioning of Entergy representatives at the June 28th utilities committee meeting.

At a June 21st New Orleans City Council meeting, dozens of gas plant opponents pleaded with the council to void the decision and revote. Many felt it was wrong of the council to have held the vote, which was 6-1 in favor of granting the plant a permit, shortly before new councilmembers were seated.

Before revisiting that decision, however, the city council plans to wait for the results of an independent investigation that is just getting underway.

However, a decision to rescind the permit could be made before the report is complete. Citizens and environmental groups opposing the gas plant have taken the matter to court, filing a lawsuit alleging New Orleans City Council violated the state’s public meetings law. A judge will hear the case, represented by Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law school professor, on July 19th.

“I expect that the hearing in July is going to dispose of the matter, politically and legally,” Quigley told The Times Picayune. “I think the council is looking forward to the judge taking this out of their hands and doing the right thing.”

The Elephant in the Room: Entergy’s Gas Plant

Although the utility committee meeting on June 28th didn’t address the gas plant, the project helped raise scrutiny of Entergy.

Entergy was compelled to turn over thousands of pages of documents and emails to the city council on June 13th. Reviewed by The Lens, these emails cast doubt that Entergy was oblivious to the extent of the astroturfing campaign and its financial support of it. Astroturfing — secretly paying for efforts to create the illusion of grassroots support — is nothing new but is often difficult to prove.

In this case, Entergy admits to its role in hiring the public relations contractor The Hawthorn Group — which has a history of astroturfing for energy companies — but denies it authorized Hawthorn to subcontract work to Crowds on Demand, the company that paid actors to attend and testify at public meetings in support of the gas plant.

The emails don’t directly prove that Entergy authorized hiring the paid actors. However, they do erode Entergy’s claim it was unaware of the measures The Hawthorn Group was taking on its behalf. An email from Hawthorn’s president Suzanne Hammelman to Yolanda Pollard, Entergy communications manager, includes prices for recruited supporters.

Among the released emails between Hawthorn and Entergy is one discussing an inquiry I sent to Pollard before the March 8th vote, asking if Entergy paid anyone to speak in favor of the project. I asked specifically about a claim by a man who said he was paid $120 to speak in favor of the gas plant.

Hammelman dismissed Pollard’s concern about my question, replying: “Hired as an actor? Apparently their evidence is one person who is dilusional [sic] or just lying.”

Gary Huntley, vice president of regulatory affairs for Entergy, in one of the released emails connected to the astoturf campaign, illustrated the company’s intention to stack public meetings with company employees and other supporters.

Councilmember Jason Williams, who voted in favor of the natural gas plant, suggested Entergy’s counsel Brian Guillot avoid speaking in platitudes.

Yet Guilliot repeated the claim he had just made that Entergy is pro-environment and not against clean energy. Williams responded, “That is like me saying I’m a good father but I haven’t seen my kids for four years,” before stepping away from the meeting briefly and seemingly out of frustration.

Squirrelly Explanations

As Melonie Stewart, Entergy’s vice president of customer service, offered an explanation for rising power outages in the city, she placed blame on aging transmission equipment, squirrels on the lines, wind, and falling trees.

Bringing up squirrels struck a chord with many attending the meeting. “We ain’t the only people on the planet with squirrels,” Councilmember Jay Banks said.

The squirrels eating the power lines is Entergy’s version of the ‘dog ate my homework,’” said Danil Faust, a former candidate for the state legislature who was the first to uncover the paid actor scheme. Faust was described as a “radical leftist” in an email to Hammelman by Crowds on Demand.

Faust and other gas plant opponents reminded the utility committee that the proposed gas plant would not fix the city’s transmission problems and if built would move the city away from its stated renewable energy goals — a fact Entergy concedes.

Entergy’s site in New Orleans East, where the land already is being prepared for the natural gas power plant.

Entergy’s site in New Orleans East, where the land already is being prepared for the natural gas power plant.

Entergy cares about money and profit for their executives— not their credibility,” Happy Johnson, author and humanitarian, told the committee.

He said the company’s recent actions make its priorities clear: Over the last two years, Entergy has done little to acquire 100 MW of renewable energy, yet in the weeks following the council permitting the gas plant, construction began clearing the land at the New Orleans East site.

Pat Bryant, a member of Justice and Beyond, asked the councilmembers when they are going to punish Entergy, reminding them that Entergy works form them. “This council needs to stand up and bring in somebody new, or this council needs to very clearly say, ‘Let’s look at some other ways of doing this,’” he said.

Grace Morris, a community organizer with the Sierra Club, speaking at the utilities committee meeting.

Grace Morris, a community organizer with the Sierra Club, speaking at the New Orleans City Council utilities committee meeting.

The elephant in the room is, we also need the council to take action on the gas plant,” Grace Morris, a community organizer with the Sierra Club, told the utility committee members. “Until the motion to suspend the March 8th decision is pushed forward by the council, Entergy is sill getting what it wants and we are stilling having to pay to move in the wrong direction.”

Though the council did not comment on the possibility of rescinding the permit, Councilmember Williams chided Entergy representatives. He reasoned that if the company were as focused on fixing the transmission system and producing renewable energy as it was on pushing ahead the gas power plant, there would be different results.

The people here today are not crazy — and they are not asking for much,” Williams told Entergy’s team. “The discontent the public has rests squarely at your feet.”

Faust was stunned by Williams’ turnaround. Before he voted in favor of Entergy’s gas plant in March, Williams spoke to some of the plants’ opponents with disdain, even threatening to remove one of them. “The tide has changed against Entergy,” Faust said.

The company has been caught with its pants down,” Faust told me after the meeting. He is hopeful that Entergy will be more accountable to city leadership, who could even take the situation a step further after rejecting the utility’s most recent financial plan. “The city can break up Entergy’s monopoly if it wants to and start working with local renewable energy companies.”

Main image: Site where Entergy plans to build a natural gas power plant in New Orleans East. Credit: All photos Julie Dermansky for DeSmog.

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