Anne Rolfes
Entergy was billed for an astroturfing campaign that involved paying people to show up at meetings to support building a gas-fired plant in Eastern New Orleans. Credit: Michael Stein / The Lens

As is now well known and much derided, in the autumn of 2017 Entergy hired an outfit called Crowds on Demand to costume actors in orange T-shirts and seat them at a New Orleans City Council meeting;. The fraudsters were being paid to pose as supporters of the gas-fired power plant that Entergy is hankering to build in the Michoud area of New Orleans East.

Ginning up fake support is a process called “astroturfing,” but it’s easy to see why the casting directors chose orange instead of green. It’s an obvious, can’t-miss color. No one would overlook the multitude of Entergy’s “supporters” in the room so garishly clad.

On a tip from activist and sometime legislative candidate Danil Faust, Lens reporter Michael Stein and others dug into the story. Columnists Tim Morris of the Times-Picayune and James Gill of The Advocate both chuckled in print over  the idea that Entergy thought it could get away with such a blatant bit of fakery. “Entergy was practically asking to get caught,” Gill wrote.

Not quite. In battles over energy and oil and chemicals in Louisiana, big corporations like Entergy repeatedly get away with offenses against common sense and public disclosure that are just as blatant as those orange T-shirts. Here’s a sampling.

No. 1: Jobs

Bayou Bridge is a proposed 162-mile oil pipeline, not yet complete, that would transport oil from Lake Charles to St. James Parish not far upriver from New Orleans. En route it would threaten 700 bodies of water it traverses, including the Atchafalaya Basin, Bayou Teche, and Bayou Lafourche, a source of drinking water for over 300,000 people.

How many times did those of us who oppose Bayou Bridge have to endure company reps claiming that the pipeline project would be a jobs engine? In January 2017, former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, describing herself as a paid consultant to Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s parent company, invoked the jobs promise at a public hearing before the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Never mind that one of the brochures that Landrieu and Bayou Bridge distributed that night pierced their own veil. The pipeline would generate all of 12 permanent jobs, the brochure revealed. Pipeline opponents spoke out, bringing that low number to the agencies’ attention. The company’s response? They edited the brochure and deleted the jobs numbers.

So much for permanent jobs, but there would be a bounty of construction jobs for Louisiana workers, right? Visit the construction sites, as I have, and you need to adjust your expectations. You’ll see pickups with license plates from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, even Utah.  Louisiana? Not so much.

I applied the crawfish test as I mingled among construction crews at these sites. “Anyone here know how to eat a crawfish?” I’d holler. The workers’ silence, their disconnect from the local culture, was as obvious as …  an orange T-shirt.

And yet the jobs lies are repeated at every turn, because the companies know they will never be held to account, especially when they can hire a former senator to flack for them. Landrieu would seem to be one of a very few people from Louisiana who actually got a job with Bayou Bridge.

St. James Parish would be the proposed pipeline’s end point. The parish is also in the crosshairs of two methanol plants, a chemical plant called Formosa and the just announced Wanhua facility. Signs at construction sites advertise temporary rooms for rent, something that in-town workers would not need.

The Formosa facility — which, like the pipeline, enjoys the support of Governor John Bel Edwards — is a $9.4 billion dollar project, called a chemical complex by project boosters. The company’s permits acknowledge that it would operate 24/7 in its production of throwaway plastics like bags and bottles, with no plan to handle the increased waste or pollution it will cause.

Despite these problems, former Governor Edwin Edwards came out of mothballs to cheer on Formosa at a public hearing. Whether he’s on Formosa’s payroll and, like Mary Landrieu, collecting fees for backing environmentally deleterious projects, is unclear.

The jobs lies are even worse when seen in the context of the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program. An analysis of that program by Together Baton Rouge noted that the Louisiana Economic Development office has never, in 80 years, conducted a cost benefit analysis of the Industrial Tax Exemption Program. Together Baton Rouge found that in East Baton Rouge Parish, companies like Exxon, Georgia Pacific and Honeywell have harvested tax breaks of more than $1 million per job created.

No. 2: Climate Change

Within the next 30 years, south Louisiana will be prone to chronic flooding if not completely submerged by rising seas, according to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  And yet the state Department of Environmental Quality is ginning up its rubber stamp to approve Formosa’s permit applications in St. James, notwithstanding a projected annual release of 23 million tons of carbon emissions, a key factor in sea level rise around the globe.

The prospect of uninhabitable and uninsurable coastal communities is even more obvious than a bright orange T-shirt. Think of it as a freight train barreling our way. While the state declines to put even a warning light in the way of projects like Formosa and Wanhua, informed residents of South Louisiana and their children are already making plans to get out and build their futures elsewhere.

 No. 3: America’s Energy Security

Here’s another bright orange T-shirt for you: Bayou Bridge is telling different audiences different things about the pipeline. In a deposition regarding property in St. Martin Parish, Bayou Bridge / ETP lawyer Ian McDonald (based in Houston, by the way; even attorney jobs are outsourced) said the following:

“Netherfield [Texas] is a place where crude oil is produced in America. It’s ultimately transported to and stored with further movement to refineries where it would be refined and the product utilized by U.S. citizens. It’s utilized by people in Louisiana.”

Got it? The oil would be used by people here. The claim was echoed in a St. Martinville Parish courtroom recently by ETP employee Kevin Taliafarro. But wait! In a pre-trial memorandum Bayou Bridge / ETP’s Houston lawyers wrote the following:

“Because the greatest market demand is exports, Louisiana’s gulf coast location makes it an ideal location for refining and exporting internationally.”

Entergy could eliminate the need for it with a robust energy efficiency program and the developments of 100 megawatts of electric power derived from solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy.

So which is it: domestic use or export? And did Louisiana regulators catch those conflicting statements or any of the other iffy claims that Bayou Bridge has made to investors, local parish councils and our own state government? In St. James Parish, council members approved the pipeline even after the Bayou Bridge representative refused to tell them what type of oil would run through it. The company and our own governor repeat claims that pipelines are the safest method of transport without providing documentation of that claim.

No. 4: This project will bring millions!

The St. James parish council’s 5th District is the proposed site of Bayou Bridge, Formosa, YCI, Louisiana Methanol and the Ergon tank farm. It’s the current site of Plains Pipeline, Nucor, Mosaica and other polluters. The 5th district has the highest percentage of African Americans in St. James; 87 percent of the population is African-American. Compare current maps to those from the 19th century and you’ll find that today’s Freetown Lane is in the same place as the Freetown founded by former slaves over 130 years ago. This important cultural heritage is being obliterated.

The state of Louisiana and the petrochemical industry love to throw around huge figures in regard to proposed petrochemical projects. The Formosa chemical complex is touted as a $9.4 billion project. Here’s another number nobody’s boasting about: The child poverty rate in the 5th District is 56 percent.

Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James, a group opposing the Formosa project, asks the obvious question: “If it will bring so much money, why is the area in which all these plants are located so poor?”

No. 5: We can’t find landowners

Bayou Bridge / ETP claims that it searched for those who own property along the Bayou Bridge route, and relied on a court-appointed attorney only when it had exhausted all search options. Its exact words in one petition were:

“Bayou Bridge made good faith efforts to identify, locate and negotiate with Defendants.”

The truth is that Bayou Bridge’s search for landowners whose property they wanted to take was lackluster. This was exposed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the organization, alongside Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and Bill Quigley of Loyola Law School that have represented landowners suing Bayou Bridge for unlawfully taking private property.  A private investigator laid bare (p. 38 of legal brief) Bayou Bridge’s shoddy attempt to find what the pipeline company  called “Absentee Defendants.”  Using an industry standard in conducting the same search, the investigator managed to find a phone number for a supposed “absentee” in only 10 minutes.

The failure to more vigorously track down the people whose property Bayou Bridge covets is an obvious attempt to snooker landowners and all of us. Attorney General Jeff  Landry failed to stand up for Louisiana landowners when he filed a brief supporting Bayou Bridge and ETP instead of the people of this state.

No. 6: Illegal Construction

Bayou Bridge is a timely example since it faces trial November 27 on trespass charges. The company is being sued by three landowners to block construction of its pipeline in the Atchafalaya Basin without their consent. What Bayou Bridge is angling for are easements — rights of way — that would allow the pipeline project to roll through this delicate wetland ecosystem. If the landowners resist, Bayou Bridge seizes the properties by eminent domain.

In the pipeline’s St. Martin Parish segment, Bayou Bridge failed to secure either easements or to expropriate the property outright. Notified of this shortcoming in late July of this year, what did the company do? Keep digging. Bayou Bridge knocked down trees, dug its trench and even laid its pipeline after being told that the construction was illegal. Aerial photographs by the Gulf Restoration Network and Atchafalaya Basinkeeper showed the destruction and were entered in the court files.

Here’s a whole room full of bright orange T shirts: trees cut down, a trench dug and a pipeline laid across 38 acres of land by Bayou Bridge, a company evidently indifferent to the rule of law.

All of the items in this catalogue of corporate dishonesty and outright illegality —  the bogus job-creation claims, the felled trees, the failure of due diligence in the search for absentee landowners, the disregard for scientific warnings about environmental peril — were found not by the state but by people like those who have shown up to oppose Entergy.

There’s Scott Eustis of Gulf Restoration Network, who has repeatedly gone up in airplanes to document illegal construction. There’s Misha Mitchell of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper who discovered that the state does not require any kind of certification before oil companies seize property for pipelines. There’s Pastor Joseph of St. James who has continued to highlight the lack of an evacuation route for residents of his community. I went out with my colleagues in  the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to find out where the workers were from and to photograph license plates.

In retrospect, the bright orange T-shirts are easy to see, though initially no one knew exactly who was wearing them. It took time and diligence to figure out the fraud. The New Orleans City Council  certainly didn’t uncover it. Local advocates did, and the media served as their megaphone.

Contrary to what columnists Morris and Gill wrote, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Entergy would be busted for hiring actors pretending to support the power plant. Faust spotted  someone he knew in the orange T-shirt crowd and followed up with his friend. The friend was at first reluctant to comment because of a non-disclosure agreement the fake demonstrators had signed in order to get paid. Without Faust’s work we might never have known.

In the case of Entergy, it is clear who needs to step up now: the New Orleans City Council. They are perilously close to letting Entergy get away with just a slap on the wrist, a fine. As Morris pointed out, a $5 million penalty for duping the Council isn’t significant for such a big company. And a fine isn’t what Entergy deserves. The approval process was tainted by fakery. It needs to start all over again.

And this time, if council members make an honest assessment of the situation, they will reject Entergy’s scheme. They will do so for the same reasons that the state should oppose Formosa, Bayou Bridge and other environmental disasters being cooked up in St. James Parish. The gas plant’s touted job claims are dubious and the adjacent community will be polluted.

Worse yet, the plant would be a further investment in fossil fuels at a time when we know the perils of climate change. Entergy could eliminate the need for it with a robust energy efficiency program and the developments of 100 megawatts of electric power derived from solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy.

The right way forward is as obvious as a bright orange T-shirt.

Anne Rolfes is founder and leader of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.