Hope for the Louisiana governor’s mansion

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The other day, I mentioned, with some enthusiasm, the growing involvement of Gen. Russel Honore in environmental issues across our home state of Louisiana. Honore is a well-known, and enormously respected, figure not just down here in bayou country but across the nation. That is due to his steady hand of leadership in the greatest crisis in modern Louisiana history, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since then, Gen. Honore has retired from active duty, but he has not lost his ardor for public service.

In recent weeks, the so-called “Ragin’ Cajun” has been making the rounds not just here in the Crescent City but around the state, rallying support for what would be the most ambitious package of environmental reform measures in Louisiana in my lifetime. The centerpiece of his plan is to fully fund the state’s coastal restoration plan — a measure that would undo decades of damage from Big Oil and Gas and help to ensure that the next Katrina (and there will surely be one) will not be as deadly.

But it’s increasingly clear, according to this fascinating column by veteran political journalists John Maginess and Jeremy Alford, that this Creole native has bigger fish to fry (article behind subscribers-only paywall):

Through his performance as the so-called Katrina General and his current role as advocate for displaced residents near the Bayou Corne sinkhole, Honoré has a cache of political influence and name recognition. While speculation has often turned to when he might run for public office, his first real move in politics will come during the 2014 regular session.

That’s when he plans to cash in his chips. “I’ve been told over and over that if you really want to change things, you have to change policies and laws,” he told LaPolitics in a follow-up interview Wednesday. “We’re going to start drafting legislation and we’re working on it right now. Everyone says what I want to do is impossible. It’s not impossible.” 

Honoré is still looking for legislative sponsors for his “environmental justice” package of bills, but he said there’s a large team already working on the proposals. It will be a true grassroots effort, he added, and if lobbyists want to join up, they’ll have to do so pro bono. “I will not be involved in anything that involves raising money,” he said.

The package will include a provision to reduce the current tax exemption for hydraulic fracturing, which should stir up a political hornet’s nest in north Louisiana, and another to strengthen regulations for aquifers, with an early focus on Baton Rouge and Acadiana

This is remarkable news. Our current Gov. Bobby Jindal, who’s been a ready and willing tool of Big Oil from Day One of his administration, is already eying a run for the White House (even as he polls at just 5 percent, or less) — and honestly he can’t leave Baton Rouge fast enough. Jindal’s only meaningful engagement on energy issues has been to side with the oil lobbyists in seeking to block the lawsuit by the New Orleans-area levee board seeking to restore the wetlands destroyed by a century of industrial abuse.

Honore, with deep family roots in Louisiana soil, his unimpeachable military record, and the leadership skills he displayed after Katrina, is a rare candidate who could appeals across party lines and to the growing number of independents, even those who have given up on the political process. And I believe his candidacy could show what I have believed all along, which is that in a state that bills itself as a “Sportsman’s Paradise,” there is a clamoring for environmental protection that has gone unheard by our so-called “leaders” for a long time.

Indeed, the recent lawsuit by the levee board serving the East Bank of the Mississippi against more than 100 oil and gas companies has awakened others in local government

Even as Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration launched an all-out assault this year against a state agency’s lawsuit accusing energy companies of destroying coastal wetlands, officials in the Republican strongholds of Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes were quietly preparing their own cases aimed at forcing the oil and gas industry to repair the damage it allegedly has done in those areas.

In coming weeks, both parishes’ councils could file their own suits centered around allegations that the industries have taken an enormous toll that can be measured in terms of land that has simply washed away, multiple sources familiar with the cases told The New Orleans Advocate.

Clearly, the bells of change are ringing out. Things in Louisiana had swung so far in the direction of the oil lobby that now the pendulum is swinging back, so much that even rock-ribbed Republicans are taking on the energy firms. And Gen. Russel Honore seems to have captured this — like lightning in a bottle. Certainly, there are many hurdles to clear in Louisiana politics. But it’s been eight decades since the last governor who took on the oil companies and fought for the little guy. We’re overdue for another, don’t you think?

 To read about Republican parishes considering lawsuits against Big Oil, please read: http://theadvocate.com/home/7531917-125/jefferson-plaquemines-consider-filing-their

The LaPolitics website (subscription required): http://lapolitics.com/

My Nov. 1 blog post on Gen. Russel Honore’s environmental activism: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/respected-general-declares-war-on-the-abuses-of-big-oil/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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