"What do you do when you want to push through a climate change-inducing, obscenely expensive fracked gas power plant in the USA's most climate threatened city?" asked "Gasland" director Josh Fox. "Well... pay actors to testify, of course!"
Fox's comments on the astroturfing are in response to recent reporting by The Lens that multiple professional actors were were paid to attend New Orleans City Council meetings to show support for a proposed Entergy gas power plant.
"We knew this to be true, but now it's been proven," said the Gulf Restoration Network.
According to 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben, "This is a mind-boggling story."
The gigs involved attending city council meetings in October and February. The actors would either get paid $60 for sporting bright orange t-shirts that read "Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power," or $200 if they got up to endorse the power plan and deliver a pre-written speech. They all had to sign NDAs, which listed "DG Consultants"—a business The Lens found no listing for; were given a clear directive to "tell nobody you're being paid"; were recruited and organized by men named Garrett Wilkerson and Daniel Taylor; and were "literally paid under the table" after the October meeting at a local Dave & Busters, a restaurant/arcade.
This is a mind-boggling story. The fossil fuel industry hired hundreds of actors to pretend they were citizens and testify at pubic hearings against renewable energy. And it worked.https://t.co/rSuPmMcWJY
— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) May 4, 2018
In a Facebook message seen by The Lens, Wilkerson said he was with a group called Crowds on Demand, though at the October meeting, he and Taylor indicated they were with a new organization called the Council for Responsible Governance. The Lens also found no listing of such a group.
The news outlet spoke to three of the actors, one of whom was wiling to give his name. One of them said he recognized 10 to 15 others sporting orange shirts at the October meeting as being local actors.
"They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power," said Keith Keough.
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One of the hired actors told The Lens that they were instructed to arrive early [to the October meeting]. "They said, you guys have to be there first thing because as soon as they open the door, we want you guys in there so if there are any protesters we got that whole room filled."
In contrast, for the final meeting on the project in March when the vote took place, the crowd was mainly opponents—no swarm of orange shirts to be found.
The campaign was apparently successful; the city council approved it 6-1 on March 8.
In fact, Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who cast the sole opposing vote, told The Lens: "I think it had a phenomenal impact on public opinion."
It's unclear who's behind the organizing. But Guidry says it was pretty clear to her. " How can you not link Entergy to this?" she asked. "Who else would have paid all these people to come there and say they want a gas-fired power plant?"
An environmental coalition says they'll be asking state and local authorities to investigate any wrongdoing, and to find out ultimately who's behind the effort.
Entergy, for its part, said it's not them.
"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, we are in the process of finalizing our investigation," it said in a press statement.
The power plant has been doggedly opposed by environmental groups, who say it would would pile on environmental injustice, and increase pollution, flood risks, and utility bills.
"What we deserve is a focus on more reliable infrastructure instead of this expensive gas plant from Entergy," said Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, following the project's approval.
"We demand a smarter energy future for our community and want investment in clean energy that truly provides resilience in the face of climate change. The world is watching and we cannot say we are preparing for a sea-level rise if we are doubling down on a gas plant in a floodplain."