Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Campbell: Louisiana needs to take climate change seriously

by BIZ Magazine

The punishing heat wave in the western United States and heavy flooding in the Northeast from Tropical Storm Elsa provide more evidence that the world’s climate is changing.

I think of Al Gore.  The former U.S. senator and Vice President held the first Congressional hearings on global warming in the 1970s.  His 2007 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, offered a clear-cut message of the threat of climate catastrophe and won him a Nobel Peace Prize.

Gore’s public acclaim made him a threat to the special interests under pressure to change their climate-warming ways and the politicians who defended them. 

Now we know from legal proceedings and independent reporting that fossil-fuel interests knew in the 1950s their products were warming the Earth.  An ExxonMobil internal document in 1982 declared the science on climate change was “unanimous” and would cause “significant changes in the earth’s climate.”

But the oil industry publicly doubted its own science, much like Big Tobacco did when its research blamed smoking for cancer and heart disease.  Exxon and other companies launched a systematic campaign to question the science of global warming and prevent meaningful action.

My home in Bossier Parish lies in the middle of the Haynesville Shale gas fields.  As a landowner, state senator and utility regulator I have had a great deal of involvement with Louisiana’s oil and gas industry.  It has provided tax revenue, good jobs and economic benefit.  But I have seen firsthand the industry’s heavy hand on our political leadership.

In the early 1980s Governor Dave Treen, a conservative Republican, proposed the Coastal Wetlands Environmental Levy.  CWEL was designed to address industry’s damage to our fragile coast with a tax on oil and gas produced offshore and processed in our state’s refineries and facilities.

In reply, industry and its allies, supporters of Treen when he ran in 1979, turned on him and helped defeat him for re-election in 1983.

Oil representatives in the 1990s similarly rejected my plan to modernize Louisiana’s 1920s system of taxing oil and gas.  I said taxing only the oil and gas produced in Louisiana was wrong when far greater volumes of hydrocarbons produced offshore but processed in Louisiana were untaxed.

These hard lessons have convinced me that Louisiana suffers from the Resource Curse.  The phrase refers to a nation (or state, in my example) with its wealth concentrated in a few industries.  The industries develop enough influence and power to undercut the public interest and bend the government to their will.

For Louisiana, the Resource Curse helps explain why our state finishes poorly in measures of economic wellbeing despite our fossil-fuel resources, forests, rich soils and assets like the Mississippi River.

At the Public Service Commission, I have urged Louisiana electric companies to favor energy efficiency and solar and wind power.  This has proved a challenge due to our abundant natural gas, cheap lignite coal and low rates for electricity.  Early in my tenure I promoted power from offshore wind and rooftop solar. 

The utilities, confident of backing from other PSC members, ignored wind and actively opposed rooftop solar.

In our last debate over rooftop solar I predicted the utilities would begin building their own solar plants to replace some of their fossil-fuel generation. 

That is where we are headed.  We are an energy state, not just an oil and gas state.  We have a task force studying climate change and are promoting offshore wind.  Our coastal industries are helping to build a wind-power sector. Utilities are investing in renewables. 

Al Gore was right on climate.  Louisiana is now recognizing that it is vulnerable to rising seas and damaging storms.  We can fight climate change, develop new industries and jobs, and watch our state prosper.  It is not too late.

Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell serves north Louisiana.

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