With his trip to an international climate change conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards acknowledged Louisiana's obvious front-row seat to the problems of a warming planet while raising his profile on an issue few of the South's top leaders promote.
The Democratic governor has become more strident in talking about the perils of climate change during his second term. But Edwards is trying to balance that discussion while describing the importance of the oil and gas industry to Louisiana. Meanwhile, the types of so-called clean energy projects the governor's touting have drawn criticism within the environmental community.
Edwards was among at least six U.S. governors, all Democrats, who attended part of the United Nations climate change conference in Scotland, known as COP26. At least two states led by Republican governors also sent representatives to the event.
“I suspect I’m the first governor of Louisiana, of my state, to speak out clearly and repeatedly about climate change. But I’m also certain I won’t be the last,” Edwards said in a livestreamed discussion with President Joe Biden's climate envoy John Kerry.
At events in Glasgow, the governor pointed to years of coastal land loss, the five major hurricanes that hit the state in the last 14 months, the winter storm and rounds of flash flooding as he described Louisiana as “ground zero” for the impacts of climate change.
“While we can’t for certain point to any one storm and say it wouldn’t have happened but for climate change, we know that the frequency and severity of these severe weather events is increasing. And we know that it’s because of climate change,” he said.
Edwards has joined Louisiana to the international Race to Zero Campaign, which seeks to reduce net carbon emissions around the world to zero by 2050. A climate change task force he created is working on a strategy document for how to reach that goal for Louisiana. And the governor's been promoting Louisiana as a hub for clean energy projects.
As he makes the pitch, Edwards can't ignore that tens of thousands of jobs in his state are tied to fossil fuels and the oil and gas industry is a chief financial backer of Louisiana's coastal restoration work. Though he's had a rocky relationship with the industry, Edwards argues oil and gas companies must be involved in energy advancements that curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
Mike Moncla, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, was skeptical other attendees of the UN climate change conference would hear Edwards' message of the industry's importance.
“While we appreciate (the governor's) rhetoric about including oil and gas in the climate change conversation, I think it’s going to fall on deaf ears above his head. Biden’s plan since day one has to been to decimate oil and gas,” Moncla said.
He suggested Edwards could be raising his profile on climate change issues to position himself for another role, since he's term-limited as governor.
“He probably sees pandering to these topics could land him a federal job in the future,” Moncla said.
Officials with the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association said the industry is working with the Edwards administration to draw projects involving carbon capture and sequestration and other cleaner energy efforts.
Edwards recently announced an industrial gas supplier will build a $4.5 billion “blue hydrogen” facility in Ascension Parish that uses natural gas to produce an alternative fuel with the carbon dioxide emissions stored underground.
"Our industry remains committed to working together with Governor Edwards and our state to address climate change and grow our economy, all while working to deliver the affordable, reliable and responsible energy needed by American households,” Lori LeBlanc, interim president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement.
Environmentalists are wary of carbon-capture technology, saying it prolongs dependence on fossil fuels. In addition, Edwards' efforts to attract biomass production sites that fuel energy through wood pellets have drawn criticism that the plants release high levels of carbon emissions and lead to deforestation.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear what happens when the term-limited Edwards leaves office in January 2024.
Edwards told Glasgow conference participants his successor won't be able to ignore the worldwide shift to cleaner energy goals, because those projects represent significant economic development and job creation for states.
“I don’t believe the next governor’s going to be able to walk this back even if they’re not thinking like I am,” he said.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.