By Tegan Wendland
It may be the most surprising addition to the growing number of states setting aggressive climate goals.
Louisiana’s economy has long relied on the production of oil, gas and petrochemicals. But in a major shift, officials are looking to dramatically reduce the fossil fuel emissions that disproportionately ravage the state with powerful hurricanes, intense floods, rising seas and extreme heat.
“Taking action to address climate change can strengthen our communities and our economy,” said Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards last week in a statement announcing his plan to join the U.S. Climate Alliance. It follows an executive order late last year setting a goal of making Louisiana carbon-neutral by 2050.
“Our kids are counting on us,” Edwards said at the inaugural meeting of his Climate Initiatives Task Force. “If anyone can identify innovative and sustainable solutions for our future, it’s Louisiana.”
The move would put Louisiana in line with President Biden’s ambitious climate target for the entire country, and what scientists say is needed globally to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of the warming climate. But it’s not clear how Louisiana could achieve that, or if Edwards can overcome political and industry pushback.
“Historic step forward”
Louisiana is the fifth-largest carbon-producing state, and its petrochemical industry has been growing in recent years. For decades, it has subsidized the oil and gas industry with tax breaks and incentives, but made it hard for wind and solar companies to operate or develop.
Now, the climate commission will explore the potential for electric cars, mass transit, solar power and offshore wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico. It includes scientists, state administrators, academics, oil industry representatives and environmental advocates.
“It’s the first time any Louisiana governor has put the words ‘climate initiative’ and ‘task force’ together in one sentence,” says Monique Harden, policy expert with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “That is a major, historic step forward.”
Harden hopes that investing in clean energy creates more jobs, especially in communities of color, and reduces pollution in low income areas. “We can actually generate energy ourselves in a way that doesn’t have these harmful environmental climate effects,” she says.
In many ways the energy transition is already happening. Shell Oil is closing a major refinery on the Mississippi River, citing consumer demand for cleaner fuels. Less of Louisiana’s GDP comes from oil and gas every year; it’s now just under 20%, half of what it was in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, large renewable energy companies are eying investments in the state. Several major biofuels plants are in the works in northern Louisiana and near Baton Rouge.
Noemie Tilghman of Deloitte Consulting says the winners in a new marketplace dominated by renewables will be the companies, and states, that can diversify. “Those who choose to ignore it, and just believe the cycle will simply work itself out will be the losers,” she says.
Even some former fossil fuel industry workers say the trend is clear.
Daniel Autin once assumed he’d have a lifelong career in oil and gas. Since losing his job five years ago, he’s wondered if he should have done something differently to stay in it. But now, “you look at things from the big picture,” he says, “and you realize that you were probably lucky to have your job as long as you did.”
Pressure for a slow transition
Still, shifting Louisiana’s energy landscape will not be easy, and it faces strong opposition.
“You don’t necessarily need to choose between energy production and being carbon neutral,” says Tyler Gray, president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, and a member of the new climate commission.
Gray says despite generous tax incentives and a history of industry-friendly policy, the state needs to do more to protect oil and gas. He and other advocates are lobbying for a slow transition away from fossil fuels, and more mitigating technologies — like carbon capture — to reduce emissions from refineries while allowing them to keep operating.
Edwards seems to be walking that same fine line. He’s scolded Biden over his oil drilling moratorium, and says the fossil fuel industry is “not going anywhere. I suspect that we have decades left.”
It’s also not at all clear that his zero-carbon goal includes the oil and gas that Louisiana exports. Plus, he’ll need to convince a Republican legislature full of pro-oil and gas lawmakers to embrace clean energy.
Meantime, just 4% of Louisiana’s total energy production currently comes from renewables like biomass, hydroelectric and solar, putting it far behind neighboring states Georgia and Texas.
Louisiana’s climate task force will make its formal recommendations early next year, aiming to balance the state’s long identity as an oil and gas state with the reality that climate change is forcing people, industries and governments to rethink everything.