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Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, shakes hands with businessman Eddie Rispone, center, as U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, left, and the other two attend an Oil and Natural Gas Industry Day event in May.

A recent poll found that 71% of Louisiana's voters believe in climate change and 50% say they're seeing its effects today, leading pollster Bernie Pinsonat to conclude that opinions in Louisiana are changing on the subject.

Yet as Louisiana prepares to choose a governor for the next four years, the three leading candidates have not made the subject a key part of their campaigns, and they are hesitant to call for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Louisiana. 

And all three continue to embrace the state's expanding energy and petrochemical industries, which are the state's largest producers of carbon dioxide, the gas linked to human-caused climate change. 

“It does show because of the consequences of some of the weather events we're having, it has dramatically raised the level of concern,” Pinsonat said of the poll’s finding that 71% of Louisianans believe climate change is real.

With its vast network of wetlands and low ground levels along its coast, Louisiana is among the U.S. states most at risk from the effects of climate change.

Those risks include rising water levels in the Gulf of Mexico that become increasingly dangerous storm surges during hurricanes; more intense hurricanes fueled by increases in Gulf moisture caused by warming sea surface temperatures; increased numbers of intense rainfall events that cause flash floods; and warmer temperatures that exacerbate human health problems and have the potential to trigger drought conditions affecting agriculture.

Louisiana's $50 billion, 50-year master plan for coastal restoration has long publicly recognized the role of climate change in increasing the risk to the state's coast in terms of both future wetland and land losses, and threats to New Orleans and other coastal population centers from storm surges.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and his Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, are each positioning themselves as supportive of the oil and gas industry. They are hesitant to call for a serious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Louisiana, at least in the near term. They are more willing, however, to call for investments in the state’s coast and in preparing for more extreme storms.

Edwards, who is running for re-election as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, treads carefully around the issue. He said he doesn’t know how much humans are contributing to climate change, but that the “critical point” is that the state should do more to prepare for increasingly intense storms.

“We can no longer react," Edwards said at a recent event in Thibodaux, where he announced eight coastal projects in Lafourche Parish. "We have to be proactive. And that’s what coastal protection is all about.”

Asked about Louisiana’s greenhouse emissions, Edwards embraced natural gas, an industry that has surged in recent years as multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas export facilities are built in southwest Louisiana. That gas, destined for overseas markets in Asia and Europe, often replaces dirtier coal-burning power plants, Edwards said.

Edwards discounts the emissions associated with natural gas production in the state, noting that coal plants that are being replaced emit far more carbon dioxide. But the wells that produce hydraulic-fractured natural gas in northwest Louisiana often are emitting methane gas in the form of flaring, a more intense form of carbon than carbon dioxide.

Also, emissions emanate from the power plants used to run refrigeration equipment to turn the natural gas into liquefied natural gas at the new and planned LNG export facilities in Cameron and Plaquemines parishes. 

Edwards has suggested Louisiana can continue to embrace natural gas for “20, 30, 40 years,” as the U.S. transitions to renewable energy.

“There’s going to continue to be a demand for hydrocarbons for a long time to come,” he said, adding, "We are a natural gas state." 

Nationally, a split between red and blue states has emerged on how to best meet emission-reduction goals, said Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. Key to that question is what role natural gas should play in a transition away from coal-fired power plants and toward renewable energy.

There’s a “perfectly legitimate” business case to be made for using natural gas in a transition period over the next two decades or so, as the world tries to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, Kammen said. And states can plan their transitions to use gas as a bridge fuel while investing in green energy as a way to create jobs. For instance, Louisiana could become a huge supplier of offshore wind power, he said.

Abraham said he generally supports investments in new technologies and that government has a role in that, though he did not specify how. Edwards also said he generally supports renewable energy, but that he is satisfied with the direction Louisiana is headed on emissions and energy. 

Kammen said the real challenge is convincing firms to retire their natural gas plants at the end of the transition period, well before they would normally be taken offline. Natural gas leaks have also in many cases eroded its emission advantage over coal, he added.

But while the argument over whether gas is a viable backstop fuel is a legitimate one, Kammen said, “there’s not a viable argument on climate change. Climate change is definitely happening,” and humans are contributing to it.

The positions of the two Republicans, Rispone and Abraham, represent a departure from long-standing GOP orthodoxy on the issue, which has involved denying the climate is changing or that humans have a role to play. The two indicated reducing emissions is a worthwhile goal generally. Still, they rejected the idea that Louisiana should mandate emission reductions, and left some room to doubt humans’ role in climate change.

The candidates offered few specific policy ideas for enticing industry to reduce emissions. Rispone's campaign has mentioned potentially offering tax credits for green energy but has said the campaign is still hashing out details. 

A 2018 climate assessment released by the federal government made clear that the earth’s climate is changing faster than at any point in modern history, “primarily as a result of human activities.” Places throughout the U.S. are already experiencing the effects, the report said, specifically noting the 2016 flooding in south Louisiana that destroyed thousands of homes.

Abraham, a Republican who represents many of Louisiana’s rural farming areas in northeast Louisiana, said he doesn’t think it’s clear what role humans play in climate change, and that while China and Russia are not doing enough to cut emissions, the U.S. is currently doing enough. He also said “the climate is always changing,” a common refrain among Republicans who are skeptical of the role of human emissions in climate change.

Abraham's campaign pointed to Judith Curry, a prominent skeptic of human-caused climate change. According to E&E News, Curry believes humans are warming the planet, but she breaks with the majority of climate scientists over how much humans are contributing, instead saying natural forces play a larger role. 

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, multiple studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals show at least 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that warming trends over the past 100 years are "extremely likely" caused by human activities. 

Both Abraham and Rispone are opposed to lawsuits that coastal parishes have filed against oil and gas companies for their role in coastal erosion. According to the Louisiana coastal master plan, oil and gas companies dredging canals “took a toll on the landscape, altering wetland hydrology and leading to land loss.”

Abraham said the state should be working with oil and gas companies to come up with “long-term solutions” for the coast, rather than fighting them in court. He indicated he trusts businesses to be “good stewards” of the environment.

“We’re going to follow federal standards per the law,” Abraham said. “But as governor, we’re not going to impose additional regulations. Our businesses now have too many regulations on a number of fronts, not just environmental.”

“Oil and gas are our stewards and our friends,” he added.

Rispone, a Republican who co-founded an industrial construction firm and is self-funding his campaign, scoffed at a question about climate change after an oil and gas industry forum earlier this year. Rispone’s company has served as a contractor for major petrochemical plants over the years, and he has campaigned in part on a promise to create jobs, including in oil and gas.

“I’m running for governor. I’m not running for president of the United States, OK?” Rispone said in May. “I don’t have anything to do with the climate change laws and everything else.”

Rispone’s spokesman Anthony Ramirez said the candidate recognizes “there’s been a change” in the climate and said he is open to following the science on the issue. But solutions should be “free market” ones, he added, not “mandates” from the government.

If Louisiana moves too forcefully to regulate emissions, Ramirez said, it risks pushing companies away, which is bad for the economy and would not help put a dent in emissions. Instead, the state should encourage innovation among companies, he said.

Steve Cochran, campaign director of Restore the Mississippi River Delta, whose organization commissioned the poll conducted by Pinsonat, agreed that Louisiana alone cannot move the needle on global emissions. 

Still, Louisiana hasn’t waded into a national debate over how to reduce emissions on a global scale. “It’s not really about this governor or the last governor," he said. "No governor has really tried to do that.”

Cochran credited Louisiana’s leaders for the coastal master plan, which is creating a model for adaptation that can be used throughout the world. But if the rest of the world begins moving away from fossil fuels like oil and gas, Cochran said, “We have to be planning for that whether we’re anticipating it or not.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest from an economic perspective that we’re prepared to transition so we don’t end up being … a stranded asset,” he said.

As climate change comes into sharper focus nationally, politicians in Louisiana have been willing to discuss how the state should mitigate its effects. The state’s coastal master plan is seen as one of the most sophisticated responses to coastal land loss in the country, and elected officials often point to the work as proof the state is addressing the problem. The gubernatorial candidates all spoke in more forceful terms about investing in coastal restoration and preparations for extreme weather.

But that coastal plan is based on science that shows climate change is exacerbating the loss of the coast. Those elected officials are more tentative when wading into the other side of the climate change debate — the one about the greenhouse gas emissions that are helping cause it, of which Louisiana contributes an outsize share.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, Louisiana had more energy-related carbon dioxide emissions than all but four other states on a per capita basis in 2016. It also ranked fifth for total amount of carbon dioxide emissions in an 11-year span ending the same year — trailing only Texas, California, Florida and Pennsylvania in the latter category.

The majority of those emissions in Louisiana — 58% — come from the industrial sector. That’s a higher share than in any other state, and Louisiana trails only Texas in the total amount of carbon emissions made by the industrial sector.

Oil and gas production, as well as other petrochemical sectors, have long employed thousands in Louisiana, and the industries are a potent political force. Pinsonat said industry is generally thought of in positive, economic terms among voters in Louisiana, rather than in terms of their impact on the environment. 

Pinsonat said denying climate change, long a mainstream Republican position, is no longer an option for some state lawmakers along coastal parishes. The polling suggests it is “no longer a solid footing to take that position.”

He also said he expects to see “more Garret Graves” over the next 20 years than deniers of climate change, referring to the congressman who represents Baton Rouge and coastal areas.

Graves, a Republican who ran the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority overseeing the master plan during Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, has emerged as a leading Republican voice on climate change as co-chair of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. In recent months, he has become a favored subject of the national media, drawing attention from The New York Times, The Guardian and even a profile from The New Yorker magazine. That story chronicled Graves’ new role as the Republicans’ de facto spokesman on climate change, and environmentalists’ skepticism of the move.

Graves told the magazine he believes the U.S. needs to reduce its emissions and move toward renewable energy, upgrade the grid system and invest in energy-storage technologies. He also said he supported President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, in which 195 countries agreed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

State Rep. Jerry “Truck” Gisclair, a 71-year-old Democrat who is running for the coastal state Senate seat held by Republican Norby Chabert, said voters he speaks with are “very aware of the encroaching Gulf of Mexico.” Whether the state can rebuild its coast quickly enough is a growing concern, he said “it is a crisis.”

While Gisclair said he agrees with science that shows human-caused emissions are contributing to the warming of the planet, he said voters aren’t thinking about climate change and coastal erosion in terms of causes, like emissions.

“The biggest concern is the freshwater diversions,” which are projects used to rebuild land along the coast, he said. “They’re afraid of the effects on oysters and shrimping and crabbing.”

Gisclair represents a district whose major employers include Port Fourchon, which serves as a base to a host of oil and gas companies. Still, he said Louisiana should “be at the table” on climate change, and should be looking at the state’s emissions.

Tanner Magee, a 39-year-old Republican state representative whose district includes parts of coastal Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, also said he trusts the “mainstream science” surrounding climate change. But he also said voters in his district don’t talk about climate change in the same terms it’s discussed nationally. People talk about coastal erosion and flood protection, not about emissions caused by industry, he said.

Magee said he believes accepting the science on climate change “doesn’t mean you have to go crazy with industry-killing regulations. I think there’s a path that allows for the continued use of industries we’re dealing with.” 

Staff writers Mark Schleifstein and Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com