As natural gas expands in Gulf, residents fear rising damage
LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana (AP) — The front lawn of Lydia Larce’s home is strewn with debris: Remnants of cabinets and chunks of pink shower marble lie between dumpsters. She lives in a FEMA trailer out back, her home in shambles more than a year after Hurricane Laura tore through Lake Charles.
Larce, like many in Southwest Louisiana, has what she calls “storm PTSD.” Tornado warnings trigger anxiety. She fidgets and struggles to sleep.
“The fear and the unknown — it has me on an edge,” Larce said. “I’m scared.”
A string of devastating hurricanes has torn through this region in recent years. Nationally, too, there have been more Category 4 and 5 hurricane landfalls in the past five years than in the previous 50 years combined. Larce and her neighbors know they are on the front lines of climate change.
Her region is now the epicenter of a trend that she fears will make those disasters even more destructive.
Developers plan to build a series of liquefied natural gas export facilities across Southwest Louisiana, already the heart of the industry. Even in a state with a heavy industrial base, these facilities are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in Louisiana.
“They’re an absolute powerhouse for greenhouse gas emissions,” said Naomi Yoder, a staff scientist at Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy. That’s because these export facilities tend to burn off, or flare, natural gas.
Greenhouse gases are raising global temperatures and fueling extreme weather, from wildfires to violent storms like the ones that have pummeled Larce’s hometown.
“We all are living in chaos,” Larce said.
For a while, it looked as though an era of steadily expanding fossil fuel facilities might be ending. Last year, after taking office, President Joseph Biden announced his intention to fight climate change by eliminating fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2035 and by sharply reducing emissions from the rest of the economy.
Yet since Biden became president, the U.S. has become the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas as demand for the fuel, known as LNG, has escalated.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suddenly intensified the push. It heightened demand for natural gas, especially for countries in Europe that relied on Russian energy but now need to cut those ties.
Seizing the opportunity, the natural gas industry promoted U.S.-produced LNG as a way to fill the gaps, and prices for the fuel have skyrocketed. American terminals are now exporting gas at full capacity, which is why the expansion of the terminals has accelerated.
It is along the Gulf Coast, in a line from Louisiana to Texas, where the new and proposed export terminals are clustered. Talk to some locals and government officials and you’ll hear unqualified support for the facilities in this battered region.
“It’s a significant boon to our economy, because it provides good, high-paying jobs,” said Eric Tarver, a member of the Calcasieu Parish School Board and chief financial officer of Lake Charles Toyota. “More than that, it’s a tremendous amount of tax revenue that just dwarfs what we’ve had from any other industry.”
But some long-time residents — often the ones who’ve lost the most to the storms — dispute those claims, saying that few of those coveted jobs end up going to people who grew up in the region.
REGION IN DISTRESS
Scattered across the neighborhoods of Lake Charles, blue tarps cover dozens of dilapidated roofs. Bungalows, pockmarked by gaping holes, are marred by broken siding and boarded-up windows — evidence of the damage inflicted by Hurricanes Laura and Delta more than a year ago. Yet with few other options, some residents are living here under the tarps.
“I feel Southwest Louisiana has been made a sacrificial lamb,” said Roishetta Ozane, a single mother of six and an organizer for Healthy Gulf.
An outspoken critic of the expansion of LNG facilities, Ozane warns her neighbors that the emissions worsen global warming and violent storms and impair their community’s air quality. She has raised money, organized food drives and helped neighbors navigate government agencies to obtain relief after disasters hit.
“Now is the time to get people’s attention, to open their eyes that climate change is real,” Ozane said. “They’re going to continue to bring these facilities here. We’ve already had these major hurricanes here. Where are we going to live?”
As she drives around a predominantly Black area of Lake Charles, past shuttered businesses and crumbling homes, Ozane’s phone buzzes with requests for help.
“Are you living in a FEMA trailer?” she asks one caller. “Text me what you need.”
There are other helpers here. Cindy Robertson is one of them. In her front yard bursting with daisies and ferns, she refills a pantry box that she stocks each morning to help feed homeless neighbors. By mid-afternoon, it’s nearly empty.
Her neighborhood has endured seven federally declared disasters in two years, and she’s grown increasingly concerned, even though her family worked in coal mining. Robertson, 62, runs a nonprofit to help vulnerable people recover.
From her house, with its seascape paintings and tapestries, she provides water, sleeping bags and tents. With a succession of LNG terminals opening around her, she worries that her region hasn’t yet seen the worst.
“The more we have more pollution from greenhouse gases,” she fears, “the worse our storms are going to get.”
A few miles away, Cameron LNG began exporting LNG in 2019. Further south, Venture Global Calcasieu Pass is shipping its first loads.
Still another LNG company, Driftwood, recently broke ground to build an export facility. That’s on top of more than a dozen oil, gas and chemical processing plants surrounding her community.
Robertson would much prefer increased investment in renewable energy, in line with Biden’s stated priorities when he took office.
“Instead of focusing on LNG, expanding what they already have... we need to take all that brainpower and all that money and put it into expanding our renewable resources,” Robertson said.
The use of wind, solar and other renewable energy has grown as prices of solar components and wind turbines have plunged. But so has the world’s thirst for natural gas. In February, the U.S. exported 317 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas — six times times the amount five years earlier.
Investment in LNG terminals catapulted from nothing in 2011, before the U.S. export industry existed, to $63 billion over the next decade, according to Rystad Energy. The firm projects that investment could swell an additional $100 billion over the next two decades.
That’s despite warnings from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure alone would cause global warming to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) — a level that scientists say would bring dangerous consequences.
Of the eight terminals now exporting LNG, five lie on the coast of Louisiana and Texas. At least 16 more plus four expansions are proposed or under construction, nearly all along that same stretch of Gulf coastline.
The projects are backed by Exxon Mobil, Qatar Energy, Total Energies and numerous other global energy giants. Financing for several proposed plants comes from BlackRock, Vanguard and Mitsubishi, according to Global Energy Monitor.
At Cameron LNG in Hackberry, Louisiana, storage tanks loom over the wetlands next to rows of intersecting pipes. There, gas is treated to remove impurities. Then it’s cooled to a liquid at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to flow onto ships. In a narrow channel, a huge French vessel called LNG Endeavor, escorted by tug boats, heads for the facility, dwarfing the homes it passes.
“We’re delivering a cleaner, more environmentally friendly fuel,” said Charlie Riedl, executive director of the Center for LNG, the industry’s lobbying group. “The U.S. can use that to help defuse some of the geopolitical issues around the world by delivering a reliable fuel source.”
Initially, Biden’s administration held off on approving requests that would expand the LNG industry. But after the war in Ukraine began, the Energy Department allowed some facilities to upgrade, increasing how much they could produce.
“The U.S. is exporting every molecule of liquefied natural gas that we can to alleviate supply issues in Europe,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in March, urging the oil and gas industry to ramp up production.
Asked whether boosting fossil fuel exports contradicts Biden’s climate goals, Granholm told The Associated Press “we have got to do both.” She said she believes the United States can help its allies, reduce the cost of fuel and transition to more sustainable options.
Since the war increased the need for alternatives to Russian gas, some European LNG import projects that had stalled are being revived, said Emily McClain, a vice president at Rystad.
“It’s really showing we’re not quite ready to table gas and move to cleaner or greener energies,” McClain said.
Riedl said he would like the administration to do even more, by approving any of the proposed LNG export terminals.
Louisiana offers a property tax break of up to 10 years to companies that build LNG terminals. Even with those tax breaks, the increased property tax income provides a windfall for the area, said Tarver, the school board member.
With Driftwood LNG beginning construction of a facility, the expected jobs are a “shot in the arm after a devastating series of disasters,” Tarver said. That the world is looking to the Gulf Coast as an energy supplier is, he said, a source of pride.
“That’s a very powerful thing to us locally, just because we’re big Pro-America, proud American people here,” Tarver said.
Others, like Ozane, argue that the tax breaks give away too much.
“We have a big homelessness problem,” Ozane said. “Our schools look horrible. If LNG is doing so much for the state, why is it like that?”
CLEANER THAN COAL?
Down the road from Cameron LNG, a new export terminal has opened about a mile from John Allaire’s beachfront home. His property, where he’s lived in an RV for 17 years since Hurricane Rita washed away his bunk house, is a refuge for spawning shrimp and diving sea birds. When his children were young, Allaire brought them fishing and hunting there.
At sunrise, the dark sky begins to crack into shades of orange and gray. A bright orb on the horizon looks like the rising sun. It’s not. It’s a flare from Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass LNG, the latest export terminal to open. The flare, a mixture of flames and smoke that pours out when the facility burns natural gas, had been burning non-stop for a week, Allaire said.
“That’s pure profit and pollution going up the stack,” he said.
Allaire, 66, a retired environmental engineer for an oil company, doesn’t oppose oil and gas use. His property sits on a former oilfield.
But he fears the destruction of the wetlands he loves: The soft waving cordgrass where black rails hide, the pelicans diving down over the lapping water to catch fish.
Commonwealth LNG has proposed another export terminal, sandwiched between Allaire’s yard and the LNG terminal that just opened. It would cover about half the ponds that are packed with blue crabs and mud minnows.
“I’m glad there’s still places like this left — I really don’t want to see it paved over,” Allaire said.
The wetlands he loves play a beneficial role for climate, too. They absorb carbon dioxide. And they provide a buffer from storm surges.
Together, the four LNG export terminals on the Gulf Coast emitted nearly 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020 — comparable to all of Costa Rica, according to the Global Carbon Project.
The LNG plants are tied to climate change in another way, too. Along the whole pathway to export, from the wells where companies drill to the ships getting loaded with LNG, methane — the powerful greenhouse gas that’s the primary ingredient of natural gas — can escape.
And it does, from leaky wells, pipelines, compressors and storage tanks. In the Permian Basin, one of the world’s richest oil and gas fields, well heads and pipelines are leaking far more methane than previously thought, according to a study that concluded that 9% of the gas produced in New Mexico’s side of the basin is leaking.
“That’s a shocking leakage estimate,” Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University and chairman of the Global Carbon Project, an international research group, said about natural gas.
At that that rate, he said, the leaking methane alone is warming the climate more than the carbon dioxide that would be released if all the produced natural gas were burned.
Natural gas proponents say it’s better for the climate than burning coal, because it releases fewer emissions when burned. But gas isn’t substituting for coal in most places, Jackson noted. Instead, as energy demand grows globally, natural gas is being used in addition to coal and other sources.
According to projections by the Energy Information Administration, natural gas use will drive an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. from 2037 to 2050 as the nation’s population and its reliance on gas grow.
To show it’s trying to limit its environmental impact, Cameron LNG reduced its emissions by 10% from 2020 to 2021. It’s also built 500 acres of tidal marsh, using material it digs up when dredging the canal.
But residents who are enduring the trauma of relentless storms know any facility that adds emissions to the atmosphere magnifies the likelihood of destruction in vulnerable communities.
“In building more LNG export terminals,” Jackson said, “we’re locking in emissions for decades to come.”
Associated Press journalists Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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