In Trump era, La. advocate worries that ‘facts don’t matter’

By Edward Klump | 01/24/2017 07:19 AM EST

After more than five years running a green-hued nonprofit in New Orleans, Casey DeMoss isn’t resigning just because Donald Trump became president.

But it’s fair to say "Trumpism" galvanized her.

The CEO of the Alliance for Affordable Energy is worried about what the new administration will mean for environmental policy, and she isn’t excited about years of playing defense. She’s also struggling with Trump’s willingness to bend the truth on matters big and small.


"With the Trump presidency, we’re in this post-fact world and I attribute a lot of my success to leaning on facts and credible information and expert witnesses," DeMoss said recently, adding: "I don’t know how I can be successful advocating for global issues with facts when facts don’t matter."

Casey DeMoss
Casey DeMoss says Feb. 9 will be her last day as CEO of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy. | Photo by Jeffrey Dubinsky, courtesy of DeMoss.

DeMoss’ worries blew up last weekend as Trump and his surrogates clashed with media outlets over reports about the crowd size at Friday’s inauguration. Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, drew heat for saying on NBC that the administration was laying out "alternative facts."

For DeMoss, policy worries were reinforced after the November election as Trump nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) to be U.S. EPA administrator and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) for the role of secretary of Energy.

"He seems to be picking people who actively dislike or want to dismantle the agency that they’re being put in charge of," DeMoss said.

Her views on Trump provide an obvious contrast to those expressed by conservatives in neighboring Texas earlier this month as they awaited a friendlier tone on regulations and fossil fuels (Energywire, Jan. 13).

Concerns aren’t theoretical to DeMoss, who said potential federal cuts could affect spent nuclear fuel storage while weaker pollution controls could lead to a free-for-all on power generation.

Still, it’s true that DeMoss had been thinking about leaving the alliance for at least six months when she announced her decision on Jan. 18. Shepherding an advocacy group is intense, and DeMoss said she needs to spend more time with her son as a single parent.

She could be spotted in recent years at City Council meetings in New Orleans, Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) meetings in Baton Rouge and countless other events. DeMoss said phone calls would come at all hours. Her last day at the alliance is set for Feb. 9.

"Running a nonprofit organization is like running a fire drill every single day," DeMoss said.

Leading the alliance

The Alliance for Affordable Energy was founded in the mid-1980s, and its website calls it "both a consumer watchdog and environmental advocacy organization." DeMoss began running the group in July 2011.

In a recent email to supporters, she cited gains in areas such as energy efficiency, rooftop solar and utility-scale renewables in Louisiana during her tenure.

In an interview, DeMoss said she’s happy a compromise was reached on rooftop solar last year, enabling customers under the PSC to have net metering for at least the power they use (Energywire, Nov. 18, 2016). She said it will be important to keep an eye on power companies that may want to resist energy efficiency efforts. At the same time, she said incentives tied to efficiency could be improved for utilities.

"Over the next 10 years, the utility business model is really shifting," DeMoss said. "And some of them will figure it out and some of them won’t."

The alliance pushed against the sale of Cleco Corp. to a group that included Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets, but the deal received PSC approval last year.

That led to a temporary rift between Commissioner Foster Campbell (D) and the alliance, which postponed a consumer award before eventually giving it to the commissioner. Campbell had sent a letter citing his work on behalf of consumers and expressed "shock" at a call to repair his relationship with the alliance. He said the Cleco deal was a chance to get benefits for ratepayers (Energywire, April 11, 2016).

"You can’t agree with everybody all the time," Campbell said in an interview, adding that "if I was going to give [DeMoss] a grade out of 10, I’d give her a 9."

Logan Atkinson Burke, the group’s only full-time staff member besides DeMoss, is expected to be interim director at the alliance starting Feb. 10. DeMoss said she looks for the group to continue working for consumers, saying it has a range of skilled contributors. A state policy director is expected to be added.

Looking back, DeMoss said her actions evolved as she worked to stabilize the alliance and boost its professionalism.

"Early on, I was still in the mindset of this scrappy organization where you pick fights with individuals, and I learned that that’s not a good strategy with a consumer protection organization," she said. "You may disagree with a decisionmaker today, but you need that decisionmaker’s vote on the next thing."

DeMoss said she’d like to see the alliance bolster its consumer protection work, such as being more involved in rate cases and formula rate plans, though public funding might be needed.

Karen Haymon, a longtime aide to former PSC Commissioner Clyde Holloway (R), said DeMoss’ exit will be a loss for ratepayers. Holloway and DeMoss both opposed the Cleco sale, and they worked together on solar policy.

"They were able to find a lot more common ground than uncommon ground over the years," Haymon said.

She said someone once complained to Holloway that DeMoss would never give in.

"And Clyde was like, ‘I know. I like that,’" Haymon recalled.

Mulling the ‘anti-candidate’

DeMoss likes to say her motto is "hope springs eternal" and she’s a proud breast cancer survivor. She’s a Louisiana native who attended the University of Texas, Austin, as an undergraduate and Tulane University for graduate school. She also spent time in the Peace Corps.

On Trump, she’s still sorting through what the election means given some of his comments about women and minorities.

"I believe that everything happens for a reason and that Americans were really hurting and voted for Trump because they had become so wildly disillusioned with our political system," she said, meaning they voted for "the anti-candidate."

While she didn’t agree with the choice of Trump, DeMoss said it isn’t wrong in the sense that there’s a "disturbing" amount of money in politics, with rotating doors of lobbyists, government officials and companies.

"Until we fix the money in the politics and the pay-to-play and the gerrymandering and all of that," she said, there won’t be "the kind of representative government that Americans really want."

DeMoss said Trump’s appointments will require a lot of defense, making the administration of George W. Bush perhaps seem "like the salad days" compared with Trump’s tenure.

"Voting does matter and I’m hopeful that at least the Trump presidency will re-engage people who perhaps had become a little disaffected and disheartened," she said.

DeMoss called for a reassertion of "what is truth" and "what is fact," adding that she’s not sure how to tackle issues tied to everything from Facebook to the news media. DeMoss might consider running for office in the future, perhaps for a spot in the state Legislature or on the City Council.

She remains adamant about having scientists speak the truth on carbon dioxide emissions and the implications for sea-level rise and coastal restoration. If leaders cannot prevent a climb in global temperatures, DeMoss said there needs to be more planning for resiliency and relocation in some areas.

DeMoss said she’s likely to stay in New Orleans. She may get behind a local project of some kind, such as making strides in combined heat and power generation.

"I don’t want to be in the defensive position," she said. "I’d rather be for something."