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The Low-Profile Runoff That Could Change Louisiana’s Climate Trajectory

Nov 18, 2022 Ricardo Gomez
An under-the-radar public service commissioner race has major implications for climate justice in the Gulf South.
The Low-Profile Runoff That Could Change Louisiana’s Climate Trajectory
A natural gas flare burns in Cameron, La. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

A low-profile public service commissioner race in Louisiana that attracted hundreds of thousands in donations from climate advocates and energy companies is going to a runoff election. The results could determine whether the state’s ambitious climate action plan comes to fruition, and play a key role in shaping how the Gulf South endures the climate crisis.

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Lambert Boissiere III was pushed into a December runoff after winning only 43.2 percent of the vote on November 8. Boissiere, a Democrat, is running for re-election to a fourth six-year term and has raked in nearly $367,000 in campaign donations this cycle, with $42,000 coming from fossil fuel companies as well as Entergy and Cleco — the powerful for-profit, investor-owned utilities regulated by the commissioner that service much of the Gulf South.

During Boissiere’s nearly two decades as public service commissioner, the state utility commission has failed to complete an energy efficiency program sought by advocates and stalled on making the electric grid resistant to hurricanes and climate change, while Entergy has continued to build gas-fired plants and maintain high rates. According to a Sierra Club report analyzing utilities’ actions toward clean transitions, Entergy and Cleco have made very little progress, despite publicly committing to addressing climate change.

The results of Boissiere’s election could reshape the Public Service Commission’s (PSC) five-member board and determine whether or not Louisiana breaks up the energy monopolies run by Entergy and Cleco. Last year, Entergy made record profits of nearly $1.2 billion while being investigated for cutting off power to New Orleans residents three times more than necessary during a period of grid trouble.

In addition to regulating the utility firms and setting fairer energy bills, the PSC plays a vital role in implementing the Gulf state’s first-ever climate action plan to institute net-zero emissions by 2050. The commission controls how Louisiana will prepare its grid to withstand climate change-fueled hurricanes and how to transition away from fossil fuels.

A key component of the plan is to go after the utility firms’ monopoly power and restructure the energy system — an idea backed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, the south’s only Democratic Governor. Edwards’ climate task force recommended the breakup to accelerate a transition to renewable energy.

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The public service commissioner race is a relatively obscure contest, so any campaign contributions that could go to media or advertisements have an outsized impact. With money from utilities and fossil fuel companies, Boissiere was originally the only candidate who could afford TV ads.

But in response to Boissiere’s significant funding lead, the Environmental Defense Fund created a super PAC to invest $500,000 to support his opposition — a vast sum given the scale of the race.

The Keep the Lights On PAC has turned the tables by running ads exposing Boissiere’s money from Entergy and Cleco, arguing that he has done little to regulate the firms.

Keep the Lights On PAC has received $150,000 from the Environmental Defense Action Fund and $300,000 from Tides Advocacy, a liberal nonprofit. Neither of those organizations disclose their donors.

Boissiere’s Democratic challengers, Davante Lewis and Gregory Manning, respectively won 18.3 and 16.8 percent of votes after making criticism of Boissiere’s political contributions key to their campaigns.

Lewis, who will face Boissiere in December, ran on a platform including a “Ratepayers’ Bill of Rights” that would end service disconnections, cap payments for seniors, ban excessive late fees, and enforce restrictions on how much investor-owned utilities companies can profit from their customers. Lewis says he would push the state utility commission to facilitate the Louisiana Climate Action Plan’s goal of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035. If he wins, the five-member board would have a pro-climate majority and could likely push forward with emission-cutting goals.

With the passage of last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) this summer, billions of federal dollars will be directed to state agencies to support electrification and transitions to renewable energy. State-led climate plans are central to cutting emissions from the electricity sector, and utilities commissions are one of their most important levers.

State utility commissions will be among the first agencies to feel the IRA’s impact because they oversee whether utilities plan and invest in renewables or continue to operate and build new fossil-fuel power plants, as most utilities are actually doing.

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