Climate concerns give national attention to Louisiana race

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The election for a seat on a typically obscure regulatory commission in Louisiana, a state with a front row seat to the effects of climate change, has gained national attention as major utility companies and outside political action committees pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race.

Saturday's runoff election for a seat on Louisiana's Public Service Commission pits Davante Lewis, a 30-year-old progressive policy advocate who wants to require utilities to reach net-zero emissions, against Lambert Boissiere III, 57, a New Orleans Democrat who has held the position for nearly 18 years and is backed by the state’s largest power company.

Louisiana has deeply and directly felt the impact of climate change with hurricanes making landfall more frequently, coastal areas eaten away by erosion, subsidence and rising sea levels and, most recently, the Mississippi River reaching record low water levels.

The state, which shares its southern border with the Gulf of Mexico, also has tens of thousands of jobs tied to the oil and gas industry.

“This race does have all the ingredients you would need for a minor race to become more important on a bigger stage,” Louisiana State University political scientist Joshua Darr said.

Environmentalists have increasingly focused on the commission, which regulates power companies and sets electric rates in the state. Even Hollywood is paying attention to the runoff between the two Democrats, with “Avengers” star Mark Ruffalo chiming in on social media with his support for Lewis.

The winner will serve a six-year term representing a district that stretches from Baton Rouge to New Orleans on the five-member commission, which has regulatory jurisdiction over public utilities providing electric, water, wastewater, natural gas and certain telecommunications services in Louisiana.

“The commission is super powerful in that they basically set electricity policy for the state,” said Brian Snyder, a climate policy and energy expert at Louisiana State University. “They really just control the prices, but through the prices they control everything.”

In 2021, Louisiana was ranked third among the top natural gas-producing states — accounting for nearly 10% of the United States’ natural gas production that year, behind only Texas and Pennsylvania. In addition, Louisiana had the fourth most energy-related carbon dioxide emissions per capita in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Along with President Joe Biden’s aggressive goal of 100% clean electricity nationwide by 2035, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards — the only Democratic governor in the Deep South — has a goal for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

For years, the commission has resisted calls to mandate that power companies get a certain share of their power from renewables, The Advocate news outlet reported. But, environmentalists are hopeful that stance will change as wind and solar have gotten cheaper to produce.

However, political experts are skeptical of the commission’s stance changing based on who wins the runoff. Both candidates say one of their top priorities is expanding Louisiana’s renewable energy. But no matter the outcome of the election, the GOP will remain the majority on the commission in a reliably red state.

“It’s a five person board and three of them are Republicans, so you’re electing a minority member of the committee. And so, they’re certainly not going to be able to just do and say everything that they want and have it become law,” Darr said.

Political experts note that Lewis and Boissiere have similar viewpoints and similar goals. However, fundraising has been a key issue playing out in the race.

Keep the Lights On, an affiliate of the Environmental Defense Fund, released attack ads against Boissiere, The Advocate reported. In addition, the incumbent received campaign contributions from utility companies that the commission regulates, including Entergy, Louisiana’s largest power company. While these types of contributions are legal in Louisiana, it has been heavily scrutinized.

“This is a question of when does the reputational damage outweigh the benefit of the money,” Darr said.

In addition, Lewis has repeatedly attacked the longtime commissioner’s efforts — or in the newcomer’s opinion, lack thereof — to invest in Louisiana’s outdated and unreliable electric grid which has been pummeled by hurricanes. Boissiere has said there is only so much he can do as one of two Democrats on the commission. However, he said the commission is “moving in the right direction” with recent deals for renewables and competitive energy.

What impacts campaign donations, national conversation or simply ballooning electricity bills – largely a result of high prices for natural gas — will play on the race will be determined Saturday as the final votes in the runoff are tallied.

Sara Cline, The Associated Press