Originally published in The Intercept on December 17, 2021.
EIGHT YEARS AGO in New Orleans, an independent levee board created after Hurricane Katrina announced a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies, seeking damages for their part in destroying Louisiana’s coastline. By that point in 2013, the state had lost roughly a quarter of its wetlands, accounting for an area about the size of Delaware. Even scientists working for oil and gas conceded that at least 36 percent of the damage was due to their industries’ activities.
The case — which the New York Times would later call “the most ambitious environmental lawsuit ever” — was hailed as a monumental step in holding fossil fuel companies to account. Two parishes neighboring New Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines, followed with their own suits. The oil industry blasted the litigation, insisting that the levee board had gone rogue. One local leader seemed to have the industry’s back: Mitch Landrieu, then the mayor of New Orleans.
“Mitch Landrieu would never sue,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental justice group based in New Orleans. “During his tenure, there were all these calls for him to join the lawsuits, but he wouldn’t.” (The city’s current mayor, LaToya Cantrell, sued oil and gas companies over coastal erosion in 2019, in a case that’s still pending.) Landrieu had said that he preferred negotiation over litigation, but as Nola.com reported, “his proposals, including one for new oil and gas taxes, were quickly rejected by the industry.”
Climate activists like Rolfes were dismayed when President Joe Biden announced in November that Landrieu had been selected to oversee the dispersal of new funds for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill now signed into law. It’s a high-visibility role that will allow Landrieu to travel around the country and build his profile as he eyes even greater national political power. But more importantly, they warn, his new post could tilt the scales in favor of fossil fuel interests as companies gun for new billion-dollar contracts to build roads, bridges, and pipelines. Landrieu did not return The Intercept’s request for comment for this story.
Landrieu said recently that climate will be his No. 1 priority for infrastructure implementation, but activists say this rhetoric is not reflected in his record from eight years as mayor. They point to his family’s close ties to the oil and gas industry; his weak, nonbinding climate plan released in his final year in office; his silence over a new gas plant approved for construction in a predominately Black and Vietnamese neighborhood; and his full-throttled defense of drilling.
“I think oil and gas production is good,” he told MSNBC in 2015. “People are gonna keep driving, and we need fossil fuels, and we need to make sure that we keep drilling.” In 2010, he urged the Obama administration to lift its ban on offshore drilling. “It is not a zero-sum game,” he insisted. “We must drill and restore.”
LANDRIEU, WHO SERVED as New Orleans mayor from 2010 to 2018, comes from a powerful political family in Louisiana that is sometimes called the “Cajun Kennedys.” His father, Maurice Edwin “Moon” Landrieu, served as mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978, followed by a three-year stint as secretary of housing and urban development under President Jimmy Carter. One of his sisters, Madeleine, is the dean of Loyola University Law School and formerly was a judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. His brother, Maurice, works as an assistant U.S. attorney, and his other sister, Mary, was the last Democrat to serve as a U.S. senator from Louisiana from 1997 to 2015.
While in the Senate, Mary Landrieu was a close ally of the fossil fuel industry. In a 2014 review of her record, the climate-focused news outlet Grist noted that she was more conservative than some congressional Republicans on environmental issues. She voted for an amendment that would reverse the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to label carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, against a bill to end tax loopholes for big oil companies, and for an amendment that would have opened up large areas of coastline to offshore drilling. She was the primary sponsor on a bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and received over $1.7 million in contributions from the oil and gas industry while a senator.
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Upon losing reelection, Mary Landrieu went straight to the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Van Ness Feldman, which advocates on behalf of oil, gas, and coal companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, Cheniere Energy, and the Coal Utilization Research Council. In her time there, she’s personally lobbied for fossil fuel interests, according to Senate lobby disclosures. She did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.
In a statement to The Intercept, a White House spokesperson said: “The Biden Administration is committed to maintaining the highest ethical standard, including Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu. As a White House employee, he will comply with the Biden Administration’s Ethics Pledge and all White House ethics and conflict of interest rules. He has received rigorous counseling on his ethics obligations, including avoiding any potential conflicts of interest. He is also required to recuse from particular matters involving his sister Mary Landrieu and any clients of hers.”
One way Mitch Landrieu could exert his influence is by steering infrastructure contracts to fossil fuel companies. Activists point to the $5 billion Clean School Bus Act, a provision of the bipartisan infrastructure package, as one example of how this could play out. That program allocates $2.5 billion for new zero-emission school bus purchases and another $2.5 billion for “low-emissions” buses, a broad category that could include compressed natural gas and propane.
“On paper, a lot of these programs are being sold as clean energy projects, but when you get down to the details, things like compressed natural gas and enhanced oil recovery can qualify,” said Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth. “There are neutral programs that could be corrupted, and someone like Landrieu can co-opt funds, because a lot of this stuff is left up to administrative discretion.”
“For formula-funding grants and competitive grants, it can really come down to who he decides to email back, who he is taking calls from, who can get a meeting,” added Dorothy Slater, a senior climate researcher at the Revolving Door Project, which scrutinizes executive branch appointees. Throughout his political career, Landrieu took at least $134,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests, per campaign finance data from the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program.
Ross and Slater also point to New Democracy, an effort launched by centrist leaders in 2017 to expand Democratic appeal in red and purple areas, for which Landrieu served on an advisory board. “[New Democracy’s] mission is to expand the party’s appeal across Middle America and make Democrats competitive everywhere,” reads the group’s website. “These pragmatic Democratic leaders need room to maneuver, not purity tests and threats to ‘primary’ incumbents who deviate from left-wing orthodoxy.”
Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser for the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, published a New Democracy memo urging swing state candidates to “vocally support the shale natural gas boom that has been overwhelmingly good for American consumers, workers and the climate” and to point out that President Barack Obama “presided over America’s largest ever oil and gas boom.” A spokesperson for PPI said that Landrieu had nothing to do with its climate recommendations.
IN LIEU OF hard policy change, some of Landrieu’s more memorable political accomplishments have been symbolic, like ordering the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans and traveling to Paris in 2015 to talk about the role of U.S. mayors in stemming climate change.
Rolfes said that it was always hard for local climate groups to criticize Landrieu when his climate plans fell short, given the even more hostile political environment they were dealing with on the state level. “In a way, it was really politically shrewd of him to engage the groups who were worried about climate because he could also neutralize them,” she said. “Groups tried to walk that line and relationship diplomatically so they could maintain his ear.”
Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, a national organization, called Landrieu an “excellent choice” to lead on the infrastructure plan. “Environmental Defense Fund has had the privilege of working with Mayor Landrieu on community resilience, coastal protection and other climate smart projects, and we have seen firsthand his deep experience with disaster management after Hurricane Katrina at the state and local level, and his resilience planning response as Mayor,” she said in a statement.
Restore the Mississippi River Delta — a coalition of “Big Green” groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, and Pontchartrain Conservancy — also praised the selection.
“Louisiana desperately needs more investments in its coast, particularly through projects in the Coastal Master Plan,” said Kimberly Reyher, executive director at Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “Mitch Landrieu understands this, so his appointment is great news for Louisiana. As Mitch said in his address at the 2018 State of the Coast conference, ‘South Louisiana is one of the most vulnerable places on the globe, making our work on long-term restoration even more important.’”
Landrieu’s elevation among national political commentators escalated in 2017 when he ordered the removal of four Confederate statues, something local activists had been organizing around for years. Leaning into the spotlight, Landrieu then published a bestselling book, “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” and by 2019 went on to become a national political commentator himself, joining CNN.
New Orleans journalist Michael Stein observed that the national love for Landrieu seemed to arise overnight. “When I went to sleep, Mitch Landrieu was the mediocre mayor of New Orleans, facing lethargic public support and intense local disapproval,” he wrote in The New Republic in 2017. “When I woke up, he was a future leader of the Democratic Party and a 2020 presidential contender.” (Landrieu did not end up running for president.)
Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history and social thought at the University of Pennsylvania, criticized Landrieu for taking so much credit for the removal of the statutes. “Mitch is a nice guy. His father was a nice guy. They’re all good people,” she told NBC last year. “But he took advantage of all the work that activists in New Orleans did to demand that the city remove those statues. … Mitch was forced into the position he took. Then he hijacked the credit in a systematic way, wrote a book promoting the idea that he was brave.”
For now, Landrieu is leaning into his new gig, speaking with mayors, governors, and local media nationwide. Last week, Politico noted that sources inside and outside the administration have said that the former New Orleans mayor has been “building a power center in the West Wing” to potentially “positio[n] himself well for a future spot in the president’s inner circle and, perhaps, in a post-Biden Democratic Party.” As one administration official quipped, “Mitch Landrieu is a machine.”
Slater said the climate community was blindsided by Landrieu’s appointment. “Revolving Door Project follows all these sorts of things, we often get intel and whispers, and yet we did not hear anything about this before it was announced,” she said. “Now in hindsight it seems like the meetings may have been happening but that they were not leaked, so there really wasn’t an opportunity for climate groups to pressure the Biden administration, and it was really sprung on people right before Thanksgiving. I think that timing was intentional.”