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Louisiana's climate plan, the only one in the Deep South, gets passed. What's next?

A closer view of flooded homes in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, after Hurricane Ida. Aug 31, 2021
Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies
A closer view of flooded homes in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana, after Hurricane Ida. Aug 31, 2021

Louisiana became the first state in the Deep South to chart a path toward significantly cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 after passing a plan that would shift its reliance away from its familiar oil and gas economy earlier this week.

The final Climate Action Plan — developed across 15 months by a state task force that includes both environmental advocacy groups and oil industry leaders — holds more than 80 policy actions. If enacted together, they would cause the reductions needed to help stave off the worst effects of a rapidly warming planet.

The plan hinges on decarbonizing Louisiana’s uniquely massive industrial sector, which spews nearly two-thirds of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, through electrification and the use of no- or low-carbon hydrogen as fuel. To be successful, the state must simultaneously build the supply of renewable energy powering the electrical grid.

Louisiana's Climate Initiatives Task Force voted unanimously to pass its first Climate Action Plan aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions statewide to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. This is a screenshot from the meeting.
Louisiana's Climate Initiatives Task Force voted unanimously to pass its first Climate Action Plan aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions statewide to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 on Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. This is a screenshot from the meeting.

While the plan is a step forward, putting its strategies into motion will require the cooperation of a slew of stakeholders with varying interests, including state and federal government agencies, universities, utilities, industry and Louisiana’s Republican-led legislature. And action must start soon to achieve Gov. John Bel Edwards’ goal of carbon neutrality in less than three decades.

On Tuesday, the final plan landed on the governor’s desk for review, and Harry Vorhoff, the deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, said the next step will be for both Edwards and the full task force to digest what’s inside before having the first meeting about implementation during the first week of March.

That meeting will aim to determine a clear path for the remainder of Edwards’ term, Vorhoff said. The lull over the next month gives agencies and other governing bodies the chance to start evaluating how they will carry out the plan’s recommendations.

“It's going to require not only a whole of government but a whole of society approach and everybody has a role to play,” said Vorhoff.

What’s in the plan?

To reach “net-zero,” the 177-page Climate Action Plan details 28 high-level strategies that cut across sectors to steeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide. As the country’s fifth-largest carbon-producing state, Louisiana sent217 million metric tonsof greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in 2018.

That will require the state to adopt ambitious policies, such as a Renewable and Clean Energy Portfolio Standard that would push utilities to generate all electricity solely from sources emitting little to no carbon by 2035.

It also calls for new mandates on heavy industry through the state Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources that would require companies to be carbon neutral by 2050 as part of a Net Zero Industry Standard. They would also bolster greenhouse gas monitoring, create industry efficiency standards and advocate for electrification incentives to coincide with new regulations and enforcement.

What comes next

While modeling suggests the plan will allow Louisiana to achieve its net-zero goal, simply having a plan isn’t enough.

“The modeling, it's not a definitive prediction of our future, right? We have to work to make that real,” said Allison DeJong, the planner with Baton Rouge-based Water Institute of the Gulf.

DeJong led the use of a nationally-recognized modelto guide the task force. Last fall, the model showed that the draft climate action plan didn’t go far enough, requiring a faster transition to clean energy and an electrified industry.

“There are many other ways in which our future might look different than that graph that’s in the plan, and so we need to act aggressively to make sure that we're locking in as many emissions reductions as soon as we can,” DeJong said.

Modeling of the 84 policies incorporated in Louisiana's first-ever Climate Action Plan suggests that, if enacted in a timely manner, the state could achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The Water Institute of the Gulf
Modeling of the 84 policies incorporated in Louisiana's first-ever Climate Action Plan suggests that, if enacted in a timely manner, the state could achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Climate Action Plan lays out near-term steps for every action item to start inching forward, but fully implementing policies beyond the March meeting will likely be harder than writing them. With just two years left in Edwards’ term, how much progress can be made on a plan that spans decades?

Vorhoff believes there is room to move some of the major priorities forward using the authorities that state agencies already have while working to broaden the coalition backing the plan’s measures.

“That's where you have your longevity is by getting as much support from as many different types of stakeholders and perspectives as possible,” he said. “The effectiveness of carrying this plan that is words on a piece of paper into reality is the amount of engagement from the public.”

Parts of the plan will rely on legislative action to create more stable policy changes that aren’t subject to administration changes and to create opportunities such as solar tax credits and carbon pricing.

“We know in Louisiana, it can easily change to where this is not an enduring effort through 2050,” said Lindsay Cooper, a policy advisor for the Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities. “So that's why we do task the legislature in many of our actions because we do want this to be long-standing work that's past this administration.”

Addressing dissent

While the plan itself passed unanimously, portions of it proved contentious, and task force members expressed their dissent for various actions. That dissent isn’t expected to disappear with the plan’s passage.

Throughout the process, tackling industry emissions sparked the most disagreement on a task force that included a wide range of perspectives, from environmental advocates and lawyers to utility and chemical industry representatives.

Over the next month, Vorhoff and Cooper expect the governor and task force members to read through the dissent and determine their priorities.

Oil, gas and chemical representatives opposed the use of government regulation to push emissions down, advocating for the state to rely on market forces to guide the transition. They argued too much change too soon could send companies to other states with less stringent standards — or out of business altogether.

“Our members are committed to reducing emissions. We've done that over the last several years, and it's been done without any legislative mandate to do that,” said Louisiana Chemical Association President Greg Bowser. “We look forward to working with the state and others in not only achieving it but achieving it in a way that does not do undue harm to Louisiana as an economic engine.”

Meanwhile, environmental and community advocates pushed hard against the state’s support of carbon capture and sequestration to bring down industry emissions. Carbon capture and sequestration involves sucking carbon from the air before it leaves facilities, supercooling it near liquid form and then transporting it through pipelines to where it can be stored a mile beneath the earth’s surface.

Advocates called carbon capture “false solutions” and argued that low-carbon fuels relying on carbon capture, such as “blue hydrogen,” could be worse than coal. They also worry the siting of carbon capture projects would follow the pattern of the state’s industrial development: locating near low-income neighborhoods or communities of color.

“This is going to involve reducing our industrial production,” Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy Director Colette Pichon-Battle said. “This is not just about what technology we can put into the world to try to balance the dirty things we put into the air. … I hope that we can see this (plan) not as the ceiling or the top of what we should do but the absolute floor and minimum of what we should do.”

In the coming months and years, the Climate Initiatives Task Force will meet quarterly to offer oversight and input on the state’s progress, though it lacks regulatory teeth of its own.

Each year, the task force will receive an annual report and make updates to the plan every five years. That data will also be used to finetune how the state models future emissions reduction scenarios.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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