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Behind Louisiana's Climate Plan To Become Carbon Neutral

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Among the states setting aggressive climate goals, perhaps the most surprising is Louisiana. The longtime oil and gas state is now trying to figure out how to become carbon neutral by 2050. Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO reports.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Like so many in Louisiana, Daniel Autin knew exactly where to find a solid career - oil and gas - hard work, but it paid for his family's modest home on the edge of the woods outside Houma.

DANIEL AUTIN: I mean, I thought I had a job for the rest of my life, you know?

WENDLAND: But five years ago, the notoriously boom and bust industry came for him. He's in a completely different field now - construction. Sometimes he wonders if he should have done something differently to stay with oil and gas.

AUTIN: And you look at things from the big picture, and you realize, you know, you were probably lucky to have your job as long as you did.

WENDLAND: Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards seems to have come to the same conclusion about the state's reliance on the oil and gas industry. In a major shift, he says the state must find ways to address the cause of the climate change that's behind increasingly powerful hurricanes, floods and rising seas. So last fall he launched a climate task force to come up with a roadmap to zero out emissions.

JOHN BEL EDWARDS: If anyone can identify innovative and sustainable solutions for our future, it is Louisiana, and our kids are counting on us.

WENDLAND: Louisiana is the fifth largest carbon-producing state and a major petrochemical and oil and gas producer. For decades, it has subsidized the industry with tax breaks and incentives but made it hard for wind and solar companies to operate or develop. Now the climate commission will explore the potential for electric cars, mass transit, more solar, even offshore wind turbines in the Gulf of Mexico.

MONIQUE HARDEN: Let me just put it this way. It's the first time any Louisiana governor has put the words climate, initiative and task force together in one sentence.

WENDLAND: Monique Harden is a policy expert with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

HARDEN: So that is a major historic step forward.

WENDLAND: She hopes that investing in clean energy creates more jobs, especially in communities of color, and reduces pollution in low-income areas.

HARDEN: We can actually generate energy ourselves in a way that doesn't have these toxic side effects and these harmful environmental climate effects.

WENDLAND: In many ways, the transition is already happening. Shell is closing a major refinery on the Mississippi River, citing consumer demand for cleaner fuels. Less and less of Louisiana's GDP comes from oil and gas every year. It's now just under 20%. That's half of what it was in the 1980s. Meanwhile, big renewable energy companies are eyeing investments in the state. Noemie Tilghman with Deloitte Consulting says the winners in this new global clean energy marketplace will be the companies and states that can diversify.

NOEMIE TILGHMAN: Those who choose to ignore it and just believe the cycle will simply work itself out will be the losers.

WENDLAND: Still, shifting Louisiana's energy production will not be easy, and it faces strong opposition.

TYLER GRAY: You don't necessarily have to choose between energy production and being carbon neutral.

WENDLAND: Tyler Gray is president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. He says, yes, reduce emissions, but a transition should happen slowly.

GRAY: Talking about an energy transition, talking about all these different needs that are out there but still having oil as part of that conversation and natural gas as part of that conversation.

WENDLAND: Governor Edwards seems to be walking that same fine line. He's scolded President Biden over his oil drilling moratorium, and it's not at all clear that his zero carbon goal includes all of the oil and gas that Louisiana exports. Plus, he'll need to convince a Republican legislature full of pro-oil-and-gas lawmakers to embrace clean energy.

EDWARDS: It will secure investment and job creation and economic growth all while we continue to work with our carbon-based fuel industry because that's not going anywhere. I suspect that we have decades left.

WENDLAND: The climate task force will make its final recommendations next year, balancing Louisiana's long identity as an oil and gas state with the reality that climate change is forcing people, industries and governments to rethink everything.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ST. VINCENT SONG, "SAVIOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.