Nothing infuriates Mayor Greg Lemons more than saying protecting the local environment goes against his party's goals.
Lemons, a card-carrying Republican, is the mayor of Abita Springs, Louisiana. He's leading the charge to get his town to commit to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. And he fought back in court against nearby fracking operations that threatened the town's aquifer.
He said renewable energy can reduce the local municipality's electric bills. Less money spent by the government? Check. Less coal burned at nearby plants, smogging up their air? Check.
"It's not a partisan issue to me…I'm not a business-at-any-cost person," he told me. "I know we need to have business, we need to have jobs, but we also need to have a place to live, and that's important too. And you can do both."
His strategy is rare within "the most Republican parish in the State of Louisiana," said Sierra Club conservation coordinator Margie Vicknair-Pray. And GOP leaders in the country don't quite support renewable friendly policies—President Donald Trump's administration has already looked for ways to promote the fossil fuel industry and starve clean energy efforts.
Meanwhile, the Abita Springs Town Council is voting on a resolution this week to move to 100 percent renewable energy. Lemons said the first step is to get all buildings on solar power, then work toward getting the local sewer station on renewable power. Homes and businesses come next.
Moving toward renewable energy makes financial sense, he said. If a town can produce its own power, it doesn't have to rely on paying another entity for electricity. That adds a level of local autonomy—another conservative value, Lemons pointed out.
Even so, Lemons's lawsuit against proposed fracking operations riled up town rivals. Several years ago, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources let Abita Springs know that they'd approved a request for oil fracking in their county. Some of the sites were set to be inside the town—one right across the street from a high school.
The big problem was the proposed well sites were perilously close to an aquifer that supplied the town's water. After a few legal battles, some of which Lemons lost, the oil companies decided to use the approved sites as test wells, rather than fracking operations. Abita Springs itself sells natural gas to its residents, the town isn't anti-oil, he said. But Lemons felt the decision cut into local municipal rights.
While he's been called a "treehugger", Lemons feels it's the right thing to do as a Republican to fight government overreach and to protect his constituents' right to clean water. "We're not getting a penny from most of those wells," he said. "So we have an economic problem and a jurisdictional problem."
Lemons has educated himself on health impacts due to pollution, state fracking regulation and groundwater health. He's learned about all the ways his town could be irrevocably damaged.
He wants to set an example for the future residents of his town that it's important to protect the water they drink and air they breathe, even if it's see as an unpopular move.
"I won't be mayor forever," he said. "I'm trying to start down that path where it's politically smart to proceed with that."