A slide from a Louisiana Industry Sustainability Council presentation
After residents of America’s “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana put a national spotlight on their fight for a healthy environment, the state’s economic interests and petrochemical giants are backing the creation of a new “sustainability council” to counter grassroots activists, documents show.
In recent years, the activists have successfully fought construction of two multibillion-dollar plastics facilities and what would have been the nation’s largest methanol plant. The growing concerns have caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency, which earlier this year sued a manufacturer of neoprene in the state for not doing enough to reduce its cancer-causing air emissions.
Now, those same groups are receiving millions of dollars from Michael Bloomberg and his Beyond Petrochemicals campaign, and the Louisiana energy and chemical companies along with the states’ business boosting groups have, in turn, created the Louisiana Industry Sustainability Council — originally called the Industry Defense Council.
“If they could do this with no money, imagine what would happen if they in fact had money,” said Beverly Wright, founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, one of the recipients of money from the Bloomberg campaign, an $85 million effort in Louisiana, Texas and Pennsylvania targeting 120 new proposed petrochemical facilities.
“They should be scared,” Wright added.
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Matt Wolfe, vice president of communications at Greater New Orleans Inc., one of the groups leading the sustainability council, said the council wasn’t created in response to any specific project.
“The members of the group are not acting out of fear, but rather the recognition that it is important that we inform a balanced, fact-based discussion, and one that recognizes that the best future for Louisiana is one that takes into account both the economy and the environment,” Wolfe wrote in an email to Floodlight.
A representative of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, one of the other groups leading the council, when asked if the pro-industry campaign was created out of fear because of the activists’ recent successes said, “Not that we’re aware of.”
“We believe that it would be a horrible missed opportunity for the people of Louisiana to lose out on this brighter economic and environmental future because of the efforts of some to halt this progress,” said Michael DiResto, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge chamber, who also highlighted that $20 billion of energy transition and carbon emission reduction investments are in development for the region.
But slides and strategies from early meetings of the group, shared with Floodlight, specifically highlight Bloomberg and efforts to counter the “small, but influential groups.”
Proposed development includes dozens of proposed carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and ammonia projects. Opponents of those proposals question their effectiveness to reduce carbon emissions and their impact on the communities that have already been harmed by the petrochemical industry.
According to an April 21 presentation by GNO Inc., the mission of the council is to “protect and grow safe and responsible community jobs and prosperity in Louisiana.”
The Louisiana Industry Sustainability Council consists of about 60 representatives, including from Chevron, Dow, Entergy, BASF and Exxon Mobil, alongside leaders of parishes in Cancer Alley. Other members include economic development groups, law firms and public relations agencies, according to a list posted on the GNO Inc website.
The list also includes a representative from LCMC Health, a regional nonprofit hospital chain that owns Children’s Hospital of New Orleans. A LCMC spokeswoman says the organization does not belong to the council and the member listed, Bub Millet, is representing a local chamber of commerce, not LCMC, where he works.
The sustainability council, according to documents leaked to Floodlight, says the opposition comes from a “small universe of vocal industry opponents” who have caught the media’s attention and are creating an echo chamber of misinformation.
Asked to characterize the misinformation, Wolfe with GNO Inc. said, in general, the activist groups and the media focus “only on the negative, and not on the positive impacts of industry on jobs, or on improving environmental outcomes.”
“Moreover, industry has committed billions to investing in further improvements in environmental outcomes,” Wolfe said.
One presentation highlighted the industry’s economic impact in the state.
At the April 21 briefing, the group said it wants to create and mobilize supporters, promote Louisiana’s industry impact, counter anti-industry initiatives and dispel and correct misinformation. The group plans to put up billboards, create TV and radio ads, and create a social and web media presence to demonstrate how industry provides value to the state.
According to the leaked documents from earlier meetings, the council’s outreach is intended to inform the public and educate industry employees and retirees, “and point them in the right direction to do something.”
Some of the council’s documents say the group will not be able to put forth its own reciprocal $85 million to counter Bloomberg’s money. But the group has laid out a $1 million-plus effort to not only advertise but also support political candidates and create online polls.
Another strategy, according to the document, is to “reinforce the resolve of parish officials.” Wolfe says the intention of that strategy is to make sure elected officials have all of the information necessary to make decisions.
The Bloomberg money was an early target of the sustainability council and, according to a slide showing its key messages, it planned to promote the message that “Louisianans are the best people to decide what’s right for Louisiana — not Michael Bloomberg.”
Wolfe says the suggested message point about Bloomberg has been rejected by the council.
Another early council strategy highlights that “Louisiana’s future comes first. Point out repeatedly that these are out-of-state interests trying to punish Louisianans into submission.”
Jo Banner, co-founder and co-director of The Descendants Project in St. James Parish, and a Bloomberg grantee, finds any concerns of out-of-state interests ironic. Her group is currently fighting a large grain elevator planned on the Mississippi River in St. John the Baptist Parish that has been proposed by a Colorado company.
“You can go and stand on the levee and look at all the outside money and all of the pollution up and down the river,” she said. “Why is that outside money now a knock against us?”
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This story is published in partnership with Floodlight, The Guardian and the Lens.
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