Entergy New Orleans faced noisy opposition three years ago when it sought City Council approval to build a $210 million natural gas fired power plant in New Orleans East.
Rates would have increased modestly to pay for the investment, but much of the opposition centered on environmental concerns and questions about whether the plant was necessary.
The utility said the plant was chiefly needed to provide electricity to the city during high-demand periods, but it would also be helpful when storms knock out the outside sources of power New Orleans then relied on for its entire supply.
The new power plant drew well-organized opposition that included the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Affordable Energy and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
The opposition was so fierce and so intimidating to Entergy that the firm hired paid actors to pack the council chamber, masquerading as supporters of the plant. The actors were paid $60 to wear orange shirts and attend public hearings.
That was a substantial blunder because Entergy always had the better side of the argument. When the tactic got exposed, it made the plant’s path to approval more challenging and diminished the firm’s credibility.
The council approved the plant in 2018 by a 6-1 vote. But after Entergy’s scheme was revealed, the council fined the utility $5 million and opted to revote the matter.
By then, a new council had been elected, and its members unanimously reaffirmed the decision at a turbulent meeting in 2019, and then prevailed in court, setting the stage for the plant to be completed and begin operation in 2020.
Staring down a packed and passionate crowd and doing what’s right for the majority of constituents is never easy in politics.
But Hurricane Ida has vindicated that decision. The plant was never designed to power the whole city. Its capacity is less than 10% of the city’s typical demand.
But in this crisis, every bit helps. Among the beneficiaries, who saw their lights go on Wednesday, were residents of New Orleans East, the folks plant opponents claimed they were working to protect.
Critics are now saying the plant wasn't fired up quickly enough, and there will be time to sort that out. But overall, New Orleanians saw their lights go on faster than their neighbors in Jefferson Parish.
Voters will have a chance to decide for themselves, because some of the council members who supported the plant are on the ballot next month. They are Helena Moreno, Joe Giarrusso, Jay Banks, Kristen Gisleson Palmer, Jared Brossett and Cindy Nguyen. Mayor LaToya Cantrell supported the plant in the 2018 vote, when she was still on the council. The only member to vote against the plant, Susan Guidry, is no longer on the council.
The courage of Cantrell and her colleagues should be a model for other elected officials intimidated by screaming crowds and social media.
That includes legislators and school board members under assault over vaccines and mask mandates. But it also should include discussions about industry in general, necessary to modern life but inextricably bound to oil and gas, often under harsh — almost theological — criticism.
Voters will be more impressed by elected officials who listen to experts, study the facts and look out for the welfare of all of their constituents, not just those who holler the loudest.