By Eileen O'Grady
HOUSTON (Reuters) - As J. Wayne Leonard retires from the ranks of U.S. electric utility executives, the former chairman of New Orleans-based Entergy Corp
Leonard, 62, retired as chairman and CEO of the electric power producer and distributor on Thursday. He has been speaking out about the dangers of global warming for years, making him something of a rarity in his industry.
The issue of how to deal with a warming planet has created a disconnect among U.S. power companies, a division between utilities that rely on coal-fired power plants that emit heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) and those that operate more nuclear, natural gas and renewable generation with lower or no CO2 emissions.
"If you're looking for the industry to come out with something that they can all get behind, I don't see that happening," Leonard said in an interview. "But I am always hopeful."
In 2001, just two years after Leonard joined the struggling company, Entergy became the first U.S. utility to commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a time when some said climate-change worries were based on nothing more than "voodoo science," Leonard recalled.
Because of the drastic implications of a warmer climate on increased coastal erosion for Entergy, a company that operates along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas coasts, "we took it seriously," he said.
In the past decade, Entergy has pared CO2 emissions by 455 million tons, exceeding its goal, the company said.
"I would try to convince the industry that (climate change) is a risk-management issue for them - not for the poor or for the world economy. It's your company that is going to be affected."
Continuing to ignore the risk will only make the problem harder and more expensive to solve, Leonard said. He believes it is worth taking action even if climate change is a mere possibility. "When you look at climate change, it doesn't have to be a certainty, it just has to be possibility."
Leonard has studied the science and is convinced that man-made greenhouse gas is a major contributor to global climate change. He acknowledges that there are skeptics but does not understand those who would do nothing.
"Even if you wanted to deny certain aspects of it, the fact that it could be absolutely catastrophic would say to you that you absolutely have to deal with it."
After years of debate, Leonard's solution today would be to put a tax on every ton of CO2 emitted across all industries, and then use the proceeds to reduce the nation's budget deficit.
While no longer at the helm of Entergy, Leonard will continue to speak out on climate change, poverty and social justice issues through a $5 million endowment created by Entergy.
"Wayne has been a passionate advocate on each of these issues during his years at Entergy, so we could think of no better way to honor him than by creating the J. Wayne Leonard Poverty, Climate Change and Social Justice Fund," said Leo Denault, Entergy's new chairman and chief executive.
Through the endowment, Leonard hopes to fund research or demonstration projects in partnership with other groups, "to get people's attention," as he said.
"For years I've been saying with the sea level rise, what's going to happen to whole East Coast? They haven't thought about it."
Hurricane Sandy gave the region a taste of what may lie ahead, he said.
Government agencies must change to be able to respond to an increasing number of extreme weather events, like Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, and Sandy, which slammed New Jersey and New York last year, Leonard said.
The United States also needs to take the lead to help other nations combat climate change with new technology.
"We desperately need to be working on a CO2-type scrubber so we can continue to use coal," especially to allow nations to improve the basic quality of life with increased electric capacity, he said.
The duty to take care of the planet is common sense, as Leonard once said in a speech: "Sustainability is a five-dollar word for an idea many of us learned in scouting - leave the place better than you found it. It's as simple as that."
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)