Louisiana's top environmental regulator resigned; here's what he says about the agency's future
After seven years at the helm, the head of Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality announced his resignation last week as Gov. John Bel Edwards’ term nears its close.
Secretary Chuck Carr Brown led the agency charged with protecting the state’s environment and the health of its residents from pollution – and leaves with mixed reviews. Louisiana’s location on the Gulf Coast and at the base of the Mississippi River attracts heavy industry, making the state home to a large concentration of oil, gas and petrochemical plants.
Before Edwards’ appointment, Brown served as an undersecretary at the Department of Environmental Quality from 2004 to 2008 during Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s term, and spent 20 years working for ExxonMobil before he went into the public sector.
On Wednesday, WWNO had an exit interview with Brown. We discussed his time at the agency and how he expects the department to tackle major threats to the state, from cutting emissions to addressing the uneven distribution of chemical plants in marginalized communities. His responses — edited for length and clarity — are below. To hear the full interview, click the audio player above.
How the agency can combat global warming
It’s been over one year since Louisiana became the first state in the Deep South to chart a path toward becoming carbon neutral by 2050. It’s known as the Climate Action Plan and places a lot of responsibility on the Department of Environmental Quality to power more sectors with electricity and low-carbon fuels as opposed to burning oil and gas – especially our industrial plants.
“I always say, regardless of whether or not you believe in climate change or not, we all can agree that the storms are more frequent – they're stronger. We have sea level rise, we have subsidence, so we have to be resilient in the way we recover. And we have to plan with resiliency in mind,” Brown said.
He noted that unlike the rest of the country, Louisiana’s industrial sector accounts for two-thirds of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That sector’s emissions are notoriously difficult to abate because the plants require a lot of energy and high heat to operate. Brown said his agency has already “started a dialogue” with companies and think tanks to figure out how it can encourage cuts in that sector.
“We're just short of setting an industry standard for greenhouse gasses. But we know that we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gas by 15% just by changing the fuel source from traditional hydrocarbons to hydrogen,” Brown said. “One of the things we're gonna try to do as much as we can from a regulatory standpoint, not necessarily have to have laws passed because it’s really difficult to do that, is we can put limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that are being emitted.”
He also backed the need for carbon capture in the state – a controversial technology that has yet to be tested on a commercial scale. Brown said they’re also looking at ways to encourage the growth of renewable energy like wind and solar in the state – despite pushback from some rural parishes against solar farms.
“I'm telling every industry that comes in (that) they need to look at getting their fuel source from renewables, even if they have to buy it. All those things will play a piece,” Brown said.
Outside of switching fuel for the industrial sector, Brown said his agency has also started working with the Department of Transportation toward building out at least 92 electric vehicle charging stations statewide.
“The Biden administration wants 300,000 electric vehicles in the state of Louisiana by 2030. Today as we sit here, there's only 4,000. In order to service 300,000 electric vehicles, you're gonna have to build four fast chargers a day — starting a year and a half ago,” he said. “So we are behind the eight ball, but we will eventually catch up.”
The rising environmental justice movement
Over the past decade, local activists living in the state’s chemical corridor — a heavily-industrialized, 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — have gained ground in their effort to stop new plants from building in the area. They’re part of a larger environmental justice movement, looking to address the disproportionate placement of environmental hazards and pollution near minority and low-income communities.
Since the election of President Joe Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency has increased its scrutiny of Brown’s agency. LDEQ is currently working with EPA officials to resolve two civil rights complaints against the state department — one argued that systemic racism was present in the state’s permitting decisions, and the other alleged the state wasn’t doing enough to protect St. John residents from one of its industrial plants.
But Brown defended the work his agency has done to address environmental justice concerns.
“There's lots of legal activity going on, there’s certain things I can't comment on, but I will tell you that all of the major reductions that have been obtained, especially from some specific facilities, this agency has been the one that's gotten those reductions. We've gotten lots of one-liners and lots of headline-getters, but ultimately, we have been the one on the front line that actually brought these issues to everybody's attention,” he said.
He raised questions about the Biden administration’s method for addressing environmental justice through civil rights complaints.
“I do applaud my federal partners. I've always tried to work with them from a co-regulation standpoint, I will continue to do that. I just think that if you got federal laws such as Title V, which is our air permitting program, and then Title VI, which is the Civil Rights statutes, then (the) two federal laws have to work in concert, and they can't conflict with each other. I think that what's going on is we're trying to make one federal law fit into another federal law’s box, and it doesn't work,” he said. “But I will guarantee you that this agency will continue to stay committed to protecting all citizens, and all the ones that are on the frontline, we will certainly always keep their help and safety at the forefront.”
He’s faced criticism from environmental advocates about being too friendly with industry, arguing his background with ExxonMobil should’ve disqualified him from the job. Brown defended his approach as “just right,” and said he only tries to work alongside the companies he regulates.
“We've utilized some of their funding to actually set monitors up in certain locations. We brought (companies) in to let them know where we're heading in certain directions. So that dialogue is extremely important because we as regulators have to understand what we do and how it impacts the regulated community, but they also have to understand what they do and how it impacts the community. Period,” he said. “I told every plant manager I know, ‘If you don't get from behind your desk and get out into the local community, and understand how the business that you conduct impacts the folks near you, then shame on you.’”
How to grow the agency
In his time at the Department of Environmental Quality, Brown has seen a steep drop in state funding and staff. A 2019 audit said those cuts have led the agency to fall behind on enforcing violations. It could take nearly nine years from a violation to actually finding or reaching a settlement with a polluting company, partially due to the smaller staff.
“When I left in 2008, we had 1,013 employees. When I came back in 2016, we had 687,” Brown said. “Since then, we've grown by 40 to 45 more positions, but we certainly need more to help us be more successful. We've met all of our benchmarks and all of our measuring sticks, but ultimately when you go from over 1,000 down to roughly 680, that's a huge cut in workforce.”
To make up for the lack of manpower, Brown highlighted the role new technology has played to improve the department’s monitoring. He touted the agency’s two new mobile air monitoring labs that move around the state for surprise data collection.
“We started in St. Gabriel over a year ago. I called the mayor and said, ‘There's no emergency. Nothing's going on.’ I just want to make sure that we had a presence in these frontline communities,” Brown said.
The department has also invested in drones for surveillance as well as collecting air and water samples. He said they plan to use it to enhance monitoring of emerging contaminants, from cancer-causing ethylene oxide to a growing body of harmful chemicals called PFAS, or “forever chemicals.”
Despite the increased use of technology, environmental groups have found that violations go under-reported.
Brown’s last day as secretary is March 31. Assistant Secretary of Environmental Assessment Roger Gingles will act as interim secretary until Edwards’ term ends in January 2024.