President Biden signed the elusive bipartisan infrastructure bill into law on November 15th. It’s just the first part of a planned two-part infrastructure push, the other being the Democrat-only Build Back Better Act which Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have slashed to pieces. Yet Biden keeps calling the bipartisan bill he signed a climate bill.
It’s undoubtedly not a climate bill — its provisions will have a negligible impact on reducing emissions, and much of the infrastructure it improves (airports, highways, bridges) is intended for a society that plans to continue its abusive love affair with fossil fuels.
So it’s somewhat unsurprising that the person Biden selected to oversee the implementation of the law is no climate champion. Mitch Landrieu, former Mayor of New Orleans and former Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, is deeply tied to the fossil fuel industry. This is dangerous, because beyond the dead-obvious giveaways to the fossil fuel industry in its text, the bipartisan infrastructure bill also includes many programs that could be beneficial to the climate, but could just as easily be corrupted.
Who, exactly, is Mitch Landrieu? It’s difficult to find a New Orleanian—or really anyone in Louisiana—who doesn’t know of the Landrieu family. His father, Moon, was Mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978, then served as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Carter. His sister, Mary, served three terms as a U.S. (Democratic!) Senator from Louisiana (more about her, and her current job as a lobbyist for fossil fuel companies, below.) Another sister, Madeleine, was a judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and is now Dean of Loyola University School of Law. His brother, Maurice, was an Assistant U.S. Attorney. This is all to say that the Landrieu family has achieved the coveted political trifecta: wealthy, well-connected, and because of the previous two factors, extremely powerful. Criticizing the Landrieu family is usually unwise.
Mitch Landrieu’s record as Mayor, from 2010 to 2018, is characteristically heavy on handouts to the private sector and light on taking political risks for progressive principles. He talked a progressive game while prioritizing business interests and ensuring, as Joe Biden promised his funders, that nothing fundamentally changed. He oversaw New Orleans’ staggering shift to a city whose public school system now consists of 100 percent privately-run charter schools. He took credit for Black activists’ decades of pressure to remove the city’s Confederate monuments, nationally championing the idea as his own once it was politically expedient and using the moment to catapult himself onto the federal political stage. He waited until his last full year in office to unveil a non-binding climate plan. Anne Rolfes of the environmental justice group Louisiana Bucket Brigade reflected upon Landrieu’s time as Mayor as “one of talking” and grandstanding while refusing to take on the fossil fuel industry. And throughout it all, he accepted campaign contributions from oil and gas interests — a total of $134,000 by 2015. This is typical of Louisiana politicians, regardless of party. But it means that the fossil fuel industry has Landrieu’s ear, and decades of his loyalty.
Less than four months after the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, Landrieu advocated for an Obama-era offshore drilling ban to be lifted, saying “we must drill and restore.” Upon reflection of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he said “I think oil and gas production is good […] we need to make sure we keep drilling.” Some uncreative critics might say he has had no other choice but to be loyal to the powerful local fossil fuel interests if he wished to preserve his family’s standing as the “Cajun Kennedys.” This is a straight-faced argument for a political leader to prioritize their short-term career interests over preventing mass extinction on our one and only planet.
Biden had to be extremely familiar with the Landrieu family when he chose Mitch to lead the implementation of his infrastructure bill. Landrieu’s sister, Mary, served three terms as a Democratic U.S. Senator from Louisiana, including during the Obama administration. Mary Landrieu was the primary sponsor on a bill to approve the construction of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline. She voted repeatedly in favor of fossil fuel interests while in office — even voting for a Mitch McConnell amendment to remove the classification of carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and against a “Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes” bill. She accepted over $1.7 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests during her tenure.
Mary Landrieu made the jump from fossil fuel Senator to fossil fuel lobbyist as soon as she lost re-election in 2014. She joined the lobbying firm Van Ness Feldman which, naturally, represented TransCanada in its push for the Keystone XL pipeline. Her first client at Van Ness Feldman was Noble Energy — as Senator, she’d pushed to expand their business in Israel, and took Noble Energy’s generous campaign contributions. Noble also hired Mary Landrieu’s former Chief of Staff, Jane Sabiston, as a lobbyist. Sabiston would go on to advise Mary’s brother Mitch during his campaign for Mayor.
Mary Landrieu has also lobbied for Venture Global LNG, to help them build domestic LNG export facilities; APTIM, to obtain funding for a permanent waste storage facility; FutureGen Industrial Alliance, to assist in the approval of their “clean” coal plant; and Genie Energy, in their attempt to expand drilling in Israel. In October 2021, she was registered as a lobbyist for Enterprise Products, assisting in the company’s application to build a crude oil export terminal off the coast of Texas.
Mary Landrieu has made no attempt to hide her loyalties. Neither has Mitch. Once his second term as Mayor ended, he helped launch the national “New Democracy” Super PAC and think tank in 2017. New Democracy was created specifically to dampen what Democratic leaders feared was a progressive awakening within the party. The group’s recommendations for the 2018 midterm elections urged Democrats to “vocally support the shale natural gas boom that has been overwhelmingly good for American consumers, workers, and the climate” and to boast that Obama had presided over the country’s largest ever oil and gas boom. The same memo criticized climate activists who fought against oil and gas dependence, while another warned against telling voters the economy was rigged against them, warned against encouraging “a costly array of benefits” (i.e. expanding the social safety net), urged the preservation of private health insurance, and envisioned “modern surveillance and sensor technology” at the Southern border.
Now, Mitch Landrieu is in charge of implementing the bipartisan infrastructure bill. He does not have limitless power over how the $1.2 trillion for the bill is to be spent. The money will be distributed, as The American Prospect’s Gabrielle Gurley explained, partially via formula funding grants, which go directly to state agencies, and partially via competitive grant programs that force states and localities to compete against one another. Decisions about how funding will be used varies greatly from state to state. But there are hundreds of little ways, day in and day out, that Landrieu himself could nudge the programs to prioritize environmental and climate justice. He could also, instead, allow them to be co-opted by fossil fuel interests. Several of the “climate” provisions in the bill—for example, funding for clean school buses, fuel and charging infrastructure, clean hydrogen hubs, and low emitting ferries—allow for “all of the above” fuel eligibility, which is politician-speak for allowing oil and gas alongside renewable energy sources. In other words, states and localities could prop up oil, gas, and coal plants while touting their green accomplishments.
Landrieu’s power here will largely be in his ability to signal whether proposed projects are in line with the intentions of the infrastructure bill. As the “infrastructure investment coordinator” and co-chair of the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force, Landrieu will be able to influence where the money goes simply by choosing which state and local leaders—and which corporations—can easily get a meeting with him. He will choose which questions and emails to respond to, and with how much timeliness. He will choose how vague to be and how helpful to be. The results of these decisions will directly impact this country’s climate response.
It’s often difficult to parse out exactly what will make powerful elites care about the climate crisis. In this case, however, it should be quite clear. The power Landrieu—and the entire Landrieu family—holds is entrenched not nationally, but specifically in New Orleans and Louisiana. He has the ears and the pocketbooks of Louisianans. If there is no Louisiana, there is no Landrieu family as we know it today. Not only does Louisiana lose an acre of land every 100 minutes due to coastal erosion and sea level rise, but every major hurricane that comes ashore in Louisiana (and those come nearly every year now) has the potential to permanently decimate the city.
The longer the Landrieus do Big Oil’s bidding, the more they endanger the Louisianans who remain. If Mitch Landrieu wants his family legacy to be one of people who laughed as their home city was destroyed, that is one option. The other would be to be brave, to stand up to the forces arrayed against New Orleans and Louisiana, to be a true public servant. How he implements the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will tell us which legacy Landrieu prefers.
Photo: “New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu” by jdlasica is licensed under CC BY 2.0