Walter Pierce

re: A Hard Sell

by Walter Pierce

Many in the Bayou State see red when they hear green. Jack Harris has the toughest job in Louisiana. He’s a Jersey kid who moved to New Orleans in the middle of the summer. He dropped by The Independent office recently to chat. Plain-spoken and earnest, Harris is the Louisiana communications director for Repower America, a non-profit group that is part of the Alliance for Climate Protection. I’ll pause a moment to allow the blood to return to your extremities.

While Harris could no doubt sidle up to a cypress and throw a loving embrace around it, he’s not your prototypical tree hugger. But in Louisiana, we fell our trees to make the paddles that spank our children, and to clear space for oil and gas wells. We do not hug trees.

Harris’ grandfather was a mechanical engineer who, for a time, buttered his bread on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The irony doesn’t escape him.

He confessed that probably more than any other state save for Tennessee and West Virginia, where coal is king, Louisiana is a hard place to make the case for a clean-energy economy. “It’s tough,” he admitted, “but we’ve gotten a lot of support so far.” By support I assumed he meant they haven’t been chased to the Pearl River by dipstick-waving roustabouts. The national group was so unfamiliar with Louisiana, it tried to arrange a door-to-door canvassing effort in the state in August. Harris and his colleagues in the New Orleans office, fearing the loss of consciousness that occasions movement outdoors in August, explained that that would be like asking the Minnesota branch to press doorbells in January in their stocking feet.

Repower America is part of an environmental phalanx dispatched last spring in the wake of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Jack and his group support the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, otherwise known as the Kerry-Boxer Bill, the Cap-and-Trade Bill, and the Completely and Utterly Decimate Louisiana’s Economy Bill. Harris refers to it as the former, but many here in Sportsman’s Paradise refer to it as the latter. Repower America’s assignment is to sell the nation on the idea that clean energy — wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric — is something we not only can but must transition to in the coming years, and that it can be a viable contributor to the U.S. economy. Natural gas isn’t part of the Repower pitch — unfortunate because, assuming the U.S. will eventually make the switch to clean energy, natural gas as a bridge from oil and coal to solar and wind would save Louisiana a whole lot of heartache. Jack Harris wants to get there fast.

But some $45 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, according to Harris, is coming into Louisiana right now to ignite clean-energy industries, and he cites research predicting that Louisiana could see the creation of 29,000 jobs based on its share of $150 billion in clean-energy investments nationwide.

And he’s bringing that message around the state. He stopped in Lafayette on his way back to New Orleans from Shreveport, where the Haynesville Shale — a massive and lucrative natural gas discovery — shouts down virtually any talk of wind turbines or photovoltaic cells. But according to Harris, that $45 million in DOE dough is being spent everywhere in the state, except in Lafayette — not surprising considering our high density of rig huggers.

Harris says one of the groups in Louisiana most willing to listen to Repower America’s climate-change-is-real message is sportsmen, in particular hunters who have noticed the altered migrations of waterfowl. “Folks who are familiar with the land see it,” Jack says. “What’s the cost of inaction,” he adds rhetorically. “What does it mean if we don’t take steps to address carbon emissions?”

The reply of the oil industry, which has tipped our waiters, endowed our professors, raised our public art and paid our private-school tuition, may well be: “Louisiana survives.”

A persistent Harris’ response, I imagine: “You don’t know Jack.