Voters in south Louisiana are electing a new public service commissioner Saturday. The commission regulates public utilities including electric, water, wastewater, natural gas, and telecommunication services.
Elections for the five members are staggered, and they serve six-year terms. Two seats were up for election this year. Foster Campbell won a fourth term in northern Louisiana during the primary.
Now, incumbent republican Eric Skrmetta is up against Metairie lawyer and democrat Allen Borne in District 1, which includes the North Shore, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson and portions of Orleans parishes.
Borne said he would advocate for diversifying energy sources while keeping rates affordable. He said the state needs to prepare for the ongoing threats of climate change — higher temperatures, rising seas, bigger storms.
“If we don't”, he warned, “and we build more coal power plants or more gas power plants that add to global warming, we're going to be in real trouble in the next couple of decades.”
Borne said the commission could implement mandates, including forcing energy companies to reduce carbon emissions and working to get the state to net zero emissions by 2050 — something Gov. John Bel Edwards has committed to.
Skrmetta, who denied WWNO’s requests for interviews but sent a statement, did not explicitly mention climate change. He said he was committed to closing the state’s six remaining coal power plants.
“I have directed the LPSC staff to develop a long-term plan to replace expensive coal-fired power plants in Louisiana with hybrid solar-natural gas generation facilities. I have a long-term goal to establish 2,000 megawatts of industrial-scale solar generation as soon as economically possible in Louisiana”, Skrmetta’s statement says.
His campaign has touted his role in reducing electric rates in the state, which are some of the lowest in the nation.
But Borne said Skrmetta can’t take credit for that. He’s one of five commissioners, and Borne argues that part of the reason for low utility rates is low prices for oil and gas.
“It's directly related to the price of gas. He had very little to do or anything to do with it,” Borne said.
In his written response to WWNO, Skrmetta said that Borne did not understand utility economics.
“My opponent doesn’t understand how the commission regulates utilities and saves ratepayers money,” he said.
Logan Atkinson Burke, head of the consumer advocacy group, the Alliance for Affordable Energy, argued that low rates don't mean people have low bills.
“Many people in our state are spending upwards of 20 percent of their income on their Entergy bill. It doesn't matter how low their per-kilowatt-hour rate is,” Burke said.
She said people have high bills because their houses are leaky and need insulation, and that the Public Services Commission should create energy efficiency programs. She also wants to see more investment in renewable energy sources, like wind and solar.
Advocates have also criticized the commission for charging people too much to place calls from prisons — a rate the commission sets. Borne said he’d lower those rates.
He also said the commission should expand its reach to include regulating internet services and expanding it to rural areas, something Skrmetta agrees with.
Borne said he wouldn’t take donations from the utility companies he would regulate, something for which Skrmetta has come under fire.
“I am always frustrated and astonished by this attack,” Skrmetta wrote. “Every contribution my campaign has accepted has been legal and accurately reported.”
Associate Director of the Tulane Energy Institute Eric Smith said receiving campaign contributions from utility companies is common practice, especially for incumbents.
He said the commission has been very business-friendly and sees that as a good thing.
“I personally think our public service commission does a pretty good job,” Smith said. “I say that from the viewpoint of a guy that tends to support the industrial efforts of the state.”
Burke said that’s unfortunate — that the commission shouldn’t be operating in the interest of business, but rather advocating for consumers, many of whom are struggling to pay high winter electricity bills during a global pandemic.
“What we're hoping is that no matter what, we wind up with a public service commission that is interested in reducing those burdens,” she said.
Allen Borne’s law firm is an underwriter with WWNO. Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.