At least four actors were paid to support a proposed gas peaker plant from Entergy New Orleans at a March public hearing, the New Orleans Lens reports, drawing scrutiny to the $210 million project approved later that month.
Members of the local film community received cash payments between $60 and $200 to support the utility's gas plant at a City Council hearing, participating actors told the investigative news site. Other local news outlets reported similar allegations in the weeks after the March 8 vote approving the 128 MW project.
- Entergy said Sunday that it had not paid or authorized payments to any actors and launched an internal investigation. Environmentalists last month appealed the City Council's 6-1 vote and filed for rehearing.
Public comment is an important element of the local approval process for many energy infrastructure projects — a factor policymakers must weigh alongside other questions such as the project's need and its environmental impact.
Typically, local hearings like the City Council's March meeting are meant to give community members a voice in a process otherwise dominated by corporate interests and nonprofits. But in New Orleans, an investigative report is stoking concerns the process was compromised before the approval of Entergy's $210 million plant.
Anonymous sources told the Lens they recognized up to 15 members of the local film community at the March City Council meeting. Some were paid $60 to wear orange shirts in support of the plant, while others received $200 for a "speaking role" in which they read prepared comments aloud.
"They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power," participant Keith Keough told the site. Other actors spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the meeting.
The incident attracted national attention in energy circles over the weekend. Montana regulator Travis Kavulla, the former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, said it should give state policymakers pause about how they consider public comments.
The pay-for-public-comment scandal in New Orleans should make every economic regulator consider that their duty isn't to do what is popular (or what appears to be popular). A Burkean thought from me, via a 2013 dissenting opinion to a transaction widely regarded as popular #mtpol pic.twitter.com/FPCpImLwz1— Travis Kavulla (@TKavulla) May 5, 2018
Entergy, for its part, said it had nothing to do with the pay-for-comment arrangement.
"The recent allegations that some supporters of the New Orleans Power Station may have been paid to attend or speak at certain public meetings are troubling and run counter to the values of our Company," Entergy said in a statement posted Sunday. "While we reiterate that Entergy did not pay, nor did we authorize any other person or entity to pay supporters to attend or speak at Council meetings, we recognize that our interactions with our stakeholders must always be based on honesty and integrity."
"To that end," the company said, "we are in the process of finalizing our investigation to determine if anyone retained by the company has acted in any way inconsistent with these values. We will take swift and appropriate action if warranted."
The Entergy news comes as gas plant investments are facing increased pressure from activists across the country. In California, the municipal utility for Glendale last month shelved a plant investment after public outcry, and in Arizona regulators placed a one-year moratorium on gas plant investments in March.