With investigation looming, Entergy power plant opponents want fresh vote_lowres

A rendering of the proposed gas power plant in New Orleans East.

For all its ham-fisted stupidity, Entergy New Orleans' strategy of paying actors to feign support for a proposed power plant in New Orleans East may turn out to be a boon to the City Council, which now has tons of leverage over the utility. Entergy desperately wants to put the PR debacle behind it amid talk of rescinding the previous council's approval of the power plant.

The council, which regulates Entergy, hopes to make a final decision this month on both the fate of the plant and a penalty against ENO for its "astroturfing" stunt. The council utilities committee will consider both matters when it meets Feb. 14.

Meanwhile, Entergy has sent council members a letter outlining a potential compromise. If that leads to some grand bargain, it would be the first smart move the utility has made in quite some time. The letter outlines key concessions by Entergy:

• Significant help in addressing the Sewerage & Water Board's power-generation challenges;

• Accelerating improvements to Entergy's distribution system (which brings power to homes and businesses);

• Cementing the utility's investment in solar power;

• Containing costs at the new plant; and

• Paying the $5 million penalty the council already has announced. That money could help fund infrastructure needs at the S&WB and elsewhere.

Both Entergy and the council have good reason to compromise. While the utility sorely needs to repair its image, it also already has spent at least $96 million on the new plant. Rescinding council approval of the facility would trigger a lawsuit that Entergy very likely would win, sticking taxpayers with the tab — and leaving them with nothing to show for it.

Those truths seemed to infuse a statement released Jan. 30 by At-Large Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who chairs the council's utilities committee. Moreno demanded more from Entergy but acknowledged that "New Orleans' ratepayers are on the hook for at least $96 million spent by Entergy since the approval." She said those costs have been verified and "represent an incredibly high 'exit' fee" for scrapping the plant. It now appears Moreno and other council members are ready to resolve these issues — provided Entergy steps up.

In another major development, the state Department of Environmental Quality green-lighted plant construction the day after Moreno's statement, effectively denying plant opponents' frenzied claims that the generating station poses a life-threatening hazard to neighboring communities. Such claims were just as intellectually dishonest as Entergy's reckless astroturfing move, in my opinion. Entergy painted a blatantly false picture of public support, but opponents likewise falsely created a sense of panic in vulnerable communities, which boosted opponents' turnout against the plant.

The real threat to people's lives is not a gas-fired plant that is one-sixth the size of its predecessor — and many times safer environmentally — but rather an extended summer heat wave (or polar vortex in winter) that produces cascading outages that would leave many New Orleanians without power.

Public hearings did not constitute any part of the official record of the City Council's deliberative process regarding the $210 million power plant. That record plainly supports building the plant.

Thanks to Entergy's ill-advised PR stunt, we now may get a lot more for our money.