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The Energy Industry’s Secret Campaign to Get Us to Build More Power Plants

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In October 2017, a crowd of 85-odd people filed into a meeting of the New Orleans City Council wearing fluorescent orange shirts with black lettering: “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power.” They claimed to be supporters of the local power company, Entergy New Orleans, in its quest to build a new gas plant in the city’s predominantly black and Vietnamese east.

Standing in the lobby, I asked them, one by one, what sense of civic duty had brought them to advocate for gas combustion at this Monday evening hearing? Each would only say, “Talk to Gary,” and direct me towards one of the two burly men who were quite literally herding the group toward the City Council chamber.

Gary said he was part of the newly formed “Council for Responsible Governance.” His partner, Dan, explained: “If there’s another emergency and this power plant isn’t built, there’s a good chance we won’t survive it.”

Dan and Gary did not live in New Orleans. Nor were they leaders of a new community action group. They had been sent by a Beverly Hills company called Crowds on Demand and they lured the orange-clad posse with under-the-table cash and promises of a pizza party at the nearby Dave & Buster’s.

The most convincing recruits, which included some professional actors, were paid extra to deliver speeches written by one of Entergy’s PR firms. The rest were simply required to wear the shirts and “clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power,” one of the fake supporters told The Lens, a New Orleans publication where I work.

Antagonism toward the plant had grown in the preceding months. Some claimed its location was fueled by environmental racism, and that it would be another node in Cancer Alley—the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge densely pocked by petrochemical infrastructure. Others focused on New Orleans’s precarious seat on the receding Gulf Coast, arguing that the city should do its part to reduce carbon emissions. And then there were those who argued that the plant was simply a waste of money that would add to New Orleans residents’ already bloated energy burden. 

A 2018 investigation by the City Council showed that Entergy officials saw the community opposition as a major threat and spent over $1 million to counter it.

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