CAMERON, La.—In a marsh near the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, under a blue sky with white pelicans and bright pink roseate spoonbills flying overhead, John Allaire grabs a fishnet and runs it through the brackish water.
A number of juvenile red drum fish as well as tiny translucent shrimp are caught in the mesh. He holds them in his hands before releasing them into the marsh water.
“This is what you eat at restaurants,” said Allaire, 66, a retired oil and gas industry environmental manager who spends as much time as he can on the 311 acres he’s owned in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, for nearly 25 years. “This whole marsh acts as a nursery to support them.”
But this marsh, he said, is threatened by a massive natural gas liquefaction and export terminal called Commonwealth LNG that is proposed for the west side of the Calcasieu Ship Channel, on property that adjoins Allaire’s land.
He stated that the Commonwealth project risks reducing natural drainage as well as the tidal flow of water through his wetlands, ponds, and to the Gulf of Mexico. This could have ecologically disastrous consequences.
“They’re going to drain all these estuaries,” Allaire said. “They’re going to kill everything in there.”
Worst, Allaire suggested that the United States should save its natural gas instead of selling it overseas to the highest bidder.
Commonwealth LNG is one of 19 proposals for new or expanded LNG export facilities along the Gulf Coast, the nation’s hotbed of current and potential export activity, according to the Environmental Integrity Project’s Oil and Gas Watch tracker project.
Alexandra Shaykevich, the tracker’s creator, stated that the tracker lists 27 LNG terminal facilities, some of which are expanding, that have been built or proposed to be constructed in the United States. These facilities could collectively emit as much as 117 Million Tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum.
That’s as much as 23 million gasoline-powered cars per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or nearly all the cars in California.
The industry could see more movement in the near future. The oil and gas industry and its supporters, Republicans and Democrats alike, are pressing for the United States to boost natural gas production and expedite the building of new LNG export facilities, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has upset global security and sparked a rethinking of U.S. and European energy policy.
Experts say that Russia slowed the flow of gas to the European Union in the months before the war. Europe is in a precarious position as it shifts toward renewable energy, but is still dependent on fossil fuels and is under increasing pressure to reduce its imports from Russia.
The Biden administration is listening.
On Friday, President Biden and the European Commission announced a joint task force that will work to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels in part by working with allies to direct more American LNG exports to Europe this year, with further growth in exports through 2030.
Biden committed the United States to a regulatory environment that would “review and expeditiously act upon applications to permit any additional export LNG capacities that would be needed” to meet Europe’s goal of eliminating its reliance on Russian natural gas.
Attempting to strike a balance on climate change, a joint statement emphasized a “commitment to Europe’s energy security and sustainability, and to accelerating the global transition to clean energy,” and to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“We’re going to have to make sure that families in Europe can get through this winter, and the next, while we’re building infrastructure for a diversified, resilient, and clean energy future,” Biden told reporters.
‘LNG Is Bad Juju’
Many leading environmentalists have reacted strongly to the idea of expanding LNG infrastructure and possibly locking in natural gas exports in the long-term.
“Pushing new toxic export facilities and decades more methane gas is a death sentence for those on the frontlines of the climate emergency, and it won’t solve Europe’s current crisis,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, in a written statement. “Approving more export terminals, pipelines and fossil fuel production only throws fuel on the fire of our burning world.”
However, Congress seems willing to allow the expansion of LNG export facilities.
“We have a tremendous amount of LNG,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said on March 3 at what was billed as a “bipartisan” press conference on U.S. energy policy. “We are expanding on our exports, with our LNG terminals. Germany is putting two terminals to receive LNG, so they don’t have to rely on Russia. It’s up to us to make sure we connect all of that together.”
Business leaders and industry supporters along the Gulf Coast are welcoming the push for LNG exports to grow as a way of boosting local economies.
However, the urgent call for LNG boosting has also generated opposition from critics. These facilities pollute the atmosphere and add large amounts heat-trapping gas to the atmosphere. Scientists are increasingly warning that the world is facing a climate emergency.
Among the opponents is retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He is worried about safety at the LNG export facilities as well as their contribution to global warming, in a part of the country particularly susceptible to impacts from climate change, including more intense, wetter and windier hurricanes, and as much as two feet of sea-level rise by 2050 and over four feet by 2100.
The plants could be damaged by high winds or overcome by storm surges with the potential for large explosions, Honoré said.
“LNG is bad juju,” the Louisiana resident said. “We are building these plants in hurricane zones, and that’s is about as stupid as we can get.”
Exports of LNG are on the rise
LNG liquefaction and Export Terminals take natural gas and supercool it to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to convert it into a liquid.
This is a very energy-intensive process that causes the product to shrink by around 600 times. The LNG is kept in huge, chilled, and insulated tanks. It is then transported to Asia, South America, or Europe in giant, chilled and insulated tanks. The vessels are 1,000 feet long and can store enough gas to heat and power thousands of homes over the course of a year.
The industry has grown in the last 15 year after new drilling techniques for extracting natural gas underground shale formations (called fracking) proliferated. This created a glut of low-cost natural gas that can then be sold at a premium abroad.
The 250-mile stretch between New Orleans, Texas and Port Arthur, Texas is where most of the activity takes place. Southwest Louisiana and Port Arthur are emerging as major LNG export hubs.
The region at the bottom of the island, where land is losing a battle against the sea, has been hit by some of the most powerful and deadly hurricanes recorded in the last two decades. They have had storms with names that, around here, anyway, will never be forgotten—Katrina and Rita in 2001, Harvey in 2017, Laura and Delta within six weeks of each other in 2020, and Ida last year.
There are still piles of debris on the roadsides, and many homes still have blue roofing tarps.
In Plaquemines Parish, 20 miles south of New Orleans, dozens of backhoes and multiple cranes reveal the start of construction on a new LNG terminal, Venture Global’s Plaquemines LNG.
In Port Arthur, Texas, ExxonMobil and its partner QatarEnergy are turning what was originally intended to be an LNG import terminal into an export terminal, Golden Pass LNG—a show of how markets can turn on a relative dime. Port Arthur also has Port Arthur LNG planned by Sempra Infrastructure.
Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass terminal can be found about as far south as Louisiana. It is located across the Sabine River, from Port Arthur. It converted what was intended to be a LNG import facility, giving it an advantage in production. It’s the largest LNG export terminal in the country and has, according to the company, loaded more than 1,000 vessels since 2016.
In Southwest Louisiana, there are three operating terminals—including Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass terminal on the west side of the Calcasieu Ship Channel, where Allaire has watched from his picnic table as the plant’s first LNG tankers fill up and head out into the Gulf, for overseas ports.
Cheniere Energy received additional flexibility from the Biden administration in March to increase its shipments. The Department of Energy also stated that it anticipates that the United States will see a 20 percent increase of exports this fiscal year, mainly due to the Calcasieu Pass terminal.
The Biden administration is caught between the short-term need to support NATO allies using fossil fuels, and its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030, and zero carbon emission by 2050.
Security and Energy: Shifting Sands
Samantha Gross, a Brookings Institution fellow and Director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative, considers the extraordinary moments, with Russia devastating the cities of Ukraine, Biden rallying NATO Allies with promises to military and energy support, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issuing a dire warning about global warming in its most recent Report.
“The security world certainly has changed underneath our feet and the energy world somewhat along with it,” she said. “When I hear this, usually from Republicans, ‘Drill baby drill, we got to supply Europe with gas,’ the timing aspect is wrong because Europe needs the gas now.”
However, any significant increase in gas exports to the United States will not be possible for three to four more years, she stated. The LNG export capacity has been exhausted, and companies that have terminals in operation are already committed for long-term contracts.
“The only way the U.S. can increase exports to Europe would be to divert gas from someplace else,” she added. “It’s good to see reducing demand is part of the plan—they’ll need it.”
Europe is also in a tight spot.
“You have this gigantic system that relies on fossil fuels,” Gross said. “And it takes a lot of time, even for places where we have the technology, we know what to do, it still takes a lot of time to turn it all over” to clean energy, she added.
“Russia will never be viewed as a reliable supplier again,” she said. Russian President Vladimir Putin is “just a pariah right now, the whole country is. And so we’re going to be staying away from Russian energy project products for a while. And that may involve some more drilling here, and some more production here.”
The United States finds itself in a burgeoning crisis, with an “axis that is developing between Russia, and China and other places that are going to squeeze us and make it even more difficult for us to meet our overall climate goals as a global community,” said David Dismukes, professor and executive director of the Louisiana State University Center for Energy Studies.
To develop export terminals, it can cost anywhere from $9 billion to $12 billion. Construction can only proceed if banks finance the energy companies financing them. He stated that most of the proposals won’t be built.
Dismukes stated, however, that expanded LNG exports could help America and its allies navigate this crisis while still working to transition to renewable energy.
He stated that it is important to keep an eye on the next several months to see if companies who have proposed new export arrangements announce that they have signed long term contracts with customers and made final investment decision.
The climate costs could be steep, he cautioned, adding that “by no means am I saying that we should stop what we’re doing around renewable energy.”
LNG liquefaction and export terminals “are admittedly relatively large emitters. Now that some of these are becoming pretty active, you can start seeing it in the data,” Dismukes said.
The facilities are reporting emissions of 5 to 7 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents a year, which, he said, “rivals some of our largest sources” in Louisiana. “And so if you start multiplying that by five, six or seven facilities, then before you know it, you’ve got a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions.”
‘You Have to Move Away From the Fossil Fuel’
Bishop Wilfret Johnson, a 78-year-old pastor who has led the Oakville Missionary Baptist Church for 40 years, carries a burden of concern these days—about the expanding LNG exports, and greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change.
The sanctuary of yellow bricks is located about 40 minutes south of New Orleans. It is on the west bank of the Mississippi River. It was established in 1869 by freed slaves who wanted to enjoy the economic benefits of owning property. It is still a community of African Americans.
The lots are small enough for a single home, a house, or a double-wide trailer. A playground is next to a graveyard. The community is divided by the four lanes of state Highway 23. There is no protected crosswalk.
While a spokeswoman for the parish government touted the economic benefits of the new Plaquemines LNG plant that’s under construction a few miles south of Oakville, Johnson sees the LNG development in a darker light.
Oakville “has been vital,” he said, sitting in the first of 11 rows of wooden pews in the church, his feet resting on purple carpeting with a “burden box” behind him, where church members can shed their troubles, written on slips of paper. “But we have suffered injustices,” he said. “Right behind here is a dump of waste that we have been fighting for 30 or 40 years.”
Johnson said that the parish’s African Americans have suffered the most from hurricanes. Ida, the most recent hurricane to hit the parish, decimated the Ironton African American community.
Plaquemines LNG export terminal to be built on several hundred acres in two phases. The terminal will eventually produce 20,000,000 tons of LNG annually. The company has assured regulators that it will comply with all environmental regulations.
According to the Environmental Integrity Project, regulatory documents show that the terminal, which would include two 720-megawatt power stations, could emit more than 8,000,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year and 3,546 tons of other pollutants.
“You have to move away from the fossil fuel,” Johnson said, as he was overseeing repairs by volunteers to a nearby community center on a recent March afternoon. “I mean, if you’re going to save the world, you can’t have the emissions.”
Johnson digs into his faith to uncover the source of his concerns regarding climate change and health. A Christian journey isn’t merely to get to a better place in heaven, he said.
“No, you have to have it better here, because God didn’t call his prophets to direct them to heaven,” Johnson said. “He called them to live by his justice, by his law … creating a community where people have a working grand relationship with God and with each other.
“And that’s what my task is now, not just getting them to heaven … but to create a better life here.”
‘Another Continuation of the Lie’
Port Arthur, Texas, located two hundred fifty-five miles west along Texas’ Gulf Coast, is an economic goldmine. Here, energy wealth surrounds a densely populated urban core, with the towers and tanks of multiple chemical plants and refineries.
Three quarters of the residents are Hispanic or Black. According to the U.S. Census more than 25 percent of these residents are living in poverty. Even though Hurricane Harvey was downgraded to a tropical hurricane, it dumped 60 inches of rain on the area, causing flooding that forced many residents from their homes. Some people live in neighborhoods with abandoned or neglected homes. Many other commercial and residential properties have been demolished, leaving behind patches or concrete.
“That used to be where the bowling alley was,” said John Beard Jr., who is in his 60s and worked in refineries for more than three decades, and whose environmental justice work now is inspired by the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “There are a lot of used-to-bes here.”
On Saturday morning last week, Beard took a visitor on what he calls his “toxic tour” of Port Arthur. Beard, a former city councilman who is passionate about fighting climate change and environmental injustice, pointed out the location of the local TV station before it moved to another part of town. And a dairy, and numerous retail outlets—all only memories now.
“You see, as deserted as this is now, as I like to say, you could lay down here and go to sleep and take a nap and nobody wouldn’t run over you,” Beard said. “I mean look at it. This is a Saturday morning, almost 11 o’clock, and the streets are basically deserted.”
With so much oil and gas wealth all around—and now an LNG export boom on the horizon—it seems clear that Port Arthur residents are not sharing in the fossil fuel wealth.
“People of color are basically left behind,” said Beard. “It’s the story of America. People who are most hurt, also benefit the most. If we are going to change, in my mind, the poverty in this city, then you are going to have to start putting (people of color) to work in the industry.”
LNG export terminals, he said, are being portrayed as a big part of the area’s future. “But we know that’s not necessarily true.”
Port Arthur will not be the worst affected by these additional emissions. “It’s just another continuation of the lie that all the wealth and prosperity lifts up these families,” he said, “but very few families get it.”
‘It’s Capitalism at its Finest’
Back in Louisiana, about an hour south of Lake Charles, beyond a string of petrochemical facilities, Allaire’s 311 acres occupy the soggy southern edge of the Bayou State.
Cameron Parish resident Allaire knows what to expect if Commonwealth LNG obtains its permits and finances and constructs the liquidation and export terminal.
He has witnessed and heard the construction Calcasieu Pass export terminal over the past three decades, including the thump of ground shaking pile driving just across the ship channel.
Now, the terminal is lit up at night like Las Vegas except that it is lit in white. The added light comes from a bright flare that often burns natural gas.
“The stars used to be great,” recalled Allaire, who was raised in the Northeast. “The stars used to remind me of camping up in northern Canada when I was a kid. We canoed into spots 50 miles from a single power pole or road.”
Allaire has been working with Louisiana Bucket Brigade to stop or slow down the facility. This environmental group has a long history of fighting environmental justice and defending communities close to petrochemical plants.
While he has a home in Houston, Allaire said he spends as much time as possible at what he calls his “Fish On Camp.” He brings his three dogs—the gray-faced elder, Pepper; Chula, a 13-week-old black Labrador retriever, and Harley, a high-jumping miniature Australian shepherd that runs fast and wants to fetch Frisbees.
His computer has photos that show his family and friends enjoying fishing and seafood feasts.
His property is almost like a natural preserve.
It’s among the first places that monarch butterflies reach in the United States after their migration from Mexico each spring, and a few could be seen flittering among the scrub oaks and marsh grasses.
It’s also among the first landing points and sources of food for songbirds—more than 2 billion in all—that fly 18 hours nonstop across the Gulf on their northern migration to North America, said Erik Johnson, a conservation director for Audubon Louisiana.
Allaire’s opposition is also based on broader concerns he gained over a career working in the oil and gas industry.
He has a folder full of printouts from U.S. Energy Information Agency as well as environmental assessments for the Commonwealth project. He attacks the proposal from both local and international perspectives. Not only would the terminal destroy wetlands, the industry’s whole LNG play, he argues, makes little economic or strategic sense for the United States.
He noted that LNG exports to China are rising, a fierce economic rival that is becoming closer to Putin. He explained that LNG exports, which have reduced the supply to Americans, can partly explain the higher natural gas prices in America over the past year.
He said that everyone is paying more for natural gasoline, for plastic products made of natural gas, and for food grown with fertilizers made out of natural gas. “It’s capitalism at its finest, for sure.”
‘We Are Tired of This Fight’
James Hiatt (southwest Louisiana coordinator for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade) was present last week when the Louisiana state regulators held a public hearing in Cameron about the proposed Commonwealth LNG export terminal.
Like Allaire, he previously worked in the oil and gas industry—as a ship agent, dock worker, tank farm operator and laboratory analyst.
“I felt my purpose wasn’t being fulfilled,” he said of his career change, before the public hearing. “I’ve had this experience of God out in nature that breaks through all this dogma. It’s not that I hate the industry and want to stop it. I drive a car that runs off gas. But we need to change directions.”
The hurricanes have been sending the region a message about climate change, he said, and the region is “missing out” on working toward a longer-lasting, clean-energy economy.
Commonwealth LNG’s draft permit shows state officials would allow the facility to emit as much as 3.5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, or about the same as more than 680,000 cars, plus other emissions like particulates and oxides of nitrogen.
Nearly 50 people attended. No one from the company participated, but on its website, Commonwealth promises to “embrace and enhance coastal wetlands biodiversity” and use “best in class” emissions control technology.
Several area residents spoke in favor, including David Shull, who said he’s worked in the oil and gas industry for more than three decades. “I know how things are designed,” he said. “These things will be very safe.”
The situation with Russia and Europe puts the United States “on a war footing,” he said, adding, “we need plants here to help folks over there.”
Wilma Subra is a chemist at the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. She said that state officials failed to consider the cumulative effects of toxic air emissions from both the proposed Commonwealth facility, and Calcasieu Pass, its neighbor.
“We are tired of this fight,” said Roishetta Ozane, a community organizer for the environmental group Healthy Gulf in Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas. “We are not a climate sacrifice zone.”
Locally, industry supporters see LNG as a long term product. This is because it employs thousands during terminal building. R.B. said that the three terminals in the region employ approximately 850 people to manage them. Smith, vice president of workforce and economic development at the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (a regional business development group).
Many salaries start at $70,000 to $80,000 per year, and can rise to six figures with overtime.
They also distance themselves form climate concerns.
“It’s not a Southwest Louisiana issue,” said Jim Rock, executive director of the Lake Area Industry Alliance, a regional industry advocacy group. “It’s not a Louisiana issue. It’s not a national issue. It’s a global issue. So it’s a global concern with global impacts.”
Besides, he added, natural gas is “the cleanest of the fossil fuels. It’s a heck of a lot better than coal.”
But a new climate plan for Louisiana that calls for the state to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 found that “risks posed by climate change to the people of Louisiana are high … and worsening,” and that “addressing the root cause of climate change” gives Louisiana an opportunity to remain competitive amid a global energy transition and to improve the health, equity and quality of life of Louisiana residents.”
‘We’re Going to Stop Them’
Last week, Allaire and Hiatt, the two old hands from the oil and gas industry turned environmental activists, sat outside Allaire’s trailer, eating chili dogs and potato chips, with Harley running underfoot. If Allaire is correct, the Commonwealth LNG export terminal will not be able to save his idyllic marsh.
And then there’s the planet surviving the greenhouse gases to come from Commonwealth and all the other export terminals on the drawing board, some of which may get approved, thanks to Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“It’s not just the LNG plants,” Allaire said. “It’s the power plants. It’s the automobiles.”
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He said that natural gas should be kept for more uses than just heating homes or sending it overseas. Instead, natural gas should be used to make plastic medical equipment, fabrics, and fertilizers.
He views a world that can’t immediately abandon fossil fuels, but said, “we got to start backing off on them.”
He’d like that to begin with the Commonwealth LNG terminal, but he acknowledges the industry is powerful.
“We’re going to stop them,” Hiatt said.
“They’re tenacious,” said Allaire. “I know, but so am I.”
Source: Inside Climate News