Louisiana LNG terminals spread pollution on local districts
A new report finds that two large Louisiana LNG export facilities are flaring constantly and under-reporting their emissions. At the same time, many more projects are on the drawing board.
John Allaire has been living along the coast of southwest Louisiana for about 25 years. The area is incredibly rich in wildlife, allowing people like Allaire to live off of the land.
“It’s all intermittent estuary and marsh, nursery areas for shrimp, crabs, fish, alligators, bobcats, deer, rabbits, all kinds of wading birds. Pelicans, ospreys…still seeing those every day, just not as many,” Allaire told Gas Outlook.
He raised his three children here, on the coastal edge of Cameron Parish, where they would hunt, fish, and enjoy the outdoors. “We’ve harvested over 300 ducks here this year so far. Caught thousands of pounds of fish,” he said.
But the tranquility was abruptly interrupted a few years ago when Venture Global began building a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal less than a mile away. The so-called Calcasieu Pass LNG facility, built where the Calcasieu River meets the Gulf of Mexico, began operations in early 2022, exporting gas to countries around the world.
The LNG terminal has been flaring constantly since it started up. Flaring is only supposed to be done in extraordinary circumstances, when LNG facilities need to burn off gas to maintain safe operations. In their federal permitting documents, Venture Global said that flaring would be a rare occurrence, limited to start-up and cool-down periods. But that is not what is happening.
“The first 90 days of operating, they flared 84 days,” Allaire said. “What they said they were going to do and what they’re actually doing is a lot different. They flare about every other day,” Allaire said.
A new report from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a local NGO, says that chronic flaring at Calcasieu Pass suggests the company is having serious operational problems at the plant. Locals and environmental groups fear the possibility of an explosion, such as the one that occurred at Freeport LNG in Texas last year.
In addition, the report argues that Venture Global is under-reporting accidents and emissions to state regulators.
Venture Global did not respond to questions from Gas Outlook.
But on the ground, the impacts are impossible to ignore. Allaire lives less than a mile west of Calcasieu Pass. When the wind blows in his direction, he said the roar of the plant sounds like a jet engine. “It sounds like an airplane approaching. Constant noise from it.”
The flares also give off an intense amount of light. He says the flame can reach 150 feet up into the air, with thick black smoke coming off of it.
“At night, it’s lit up like Las Vegas,” Allaire said. “Whereas before, this was the place everyone wanted to come to look at the stars on a clear night. You could see the Milky Way every single night.” He said when he goes duck hunting at night hours, he no longer needs a flashlight.
Calcasieu Pass is only the latest in a slew of LNG projects planned for the Gulf Coast. The U.S. has seven LNG terminals operating, a couple under construction, and nearly two dozen more that are proposed.
The rush to build and export gas is making life increasingly untenable for the people who still live in the area. Having already suffered from catastrophic hurricanes in recent years, LNG plants are now pushing out fishermen and shrimpers.
“Venture Global has leased up basically every dock space for putting their boats. There was a fishing pier that I used to fish on when I was growing up. That’s all been taken. There’s no place to launch a boat,” James Hiatt, a former worker in the petrochemical industry and now an organizer with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, told Gas Outlook.
Hiatt said another boat launch on the opposite side of the Calcasieu River was taken to be used for parking for Venture Global workers. As a result, fishermen have had to use a makeshift boat launch just to get out onto the water. “There seems like there’s a great disdain for the people of Southwest Louisiana who fish and hunt and oyster and shrimp. Like, where can you go?” Hiatt said.
Travis Dardar, an Indigenous fisherman, says that LNG has ruined his life. “The fishing industry has sustained families like mine for generations. The build-out proposed is basically to build on top of the entire fishing grounds, everywhere we fish,” Dardar said at a press event on January 10. “This has been an absolute nightmare for the people living around it. And we are tired of it.”
More Louisiana LNG in the works
Further up the Calcasieu Channel, the LNG industry has plans for a handful of other export terminals. Cameron LNG started up in 2019 and continues to ship gas overseas. On the drawing board are several more, including Driftwood LNG, Lake Charles LNG, and Magnolia LNG.
Roishetta Ozane, a single mother of six children, lives in a town called Sulphur, close to the proposed Driftwood LNG project. If it moves forward, it would be the latest industrial facility in an area already suffocating from toxic pollution billowing out of gas and petrochemical facilities.
“I live really close to where Driftwood LNG site is being built and not far from where the newly approved Commonwealth facility will be. And also very close to other industries, such as Indorama, LyondellBasel, WestLake Chemical, Sasol,” Ozane told Gas Outlook, listing off a bunch of global chemical companies. “I live within a 30-mile radius of all of those industries, with several of them in my backyard.”
“Going outside every day, smelling these gases…sometimes it smells like rotten eggs, sometimes like chlorine. It just depends on the day and which facility is emitting the most,” Ozane said. “My children see the flares every day. They used to ask me ‘what was the fire in the sky?’ or ‘it looks like the Statue of Liberty’ or whatever. But now they are becoming desensitized to it just like many other residents here.”
Ozane, an organizer with Healthy Gulf, an NGO, and the founder of the Vessel Project of Louisiana, a grassroots mutual aid organization, said that many residents in southwest Louisiana, already battered by the worsening climate crisis, struggle with daily necessities, which makes organizing against gargantuan new fossil fuel terminals difficult.
“We lost everything to the hurricanes. The reason why these storms are intensifying and becoming more frequent is due to climate change. And what we have here in southwest Louisiana are the industries that are contributing to the warming,” Ozane said. Much of the pollution falls disproportionately on Black, Indigenous, and other communities of colour, she said, adding that while she raised these environmental justice concerns with federal and state officials, very few people in power seem to care.
“I brought the FERC Commissioners here, gave them a tour, and those commissioners went right back to DC and approved Commonwealth LNG,” she said.
Ozane questioned the oft-repeated logic that more American LNG is needed to supply allies in Europe due to the war in Ukraine.
“It could be five to eight years before they are even finished building this facility. And then once it’s built, it could be 30 years that they are able to operate,” she said. “So, we’re signing death certificates on the premise that other countries need us, when those countries are trying to get towards zero emissions, trying to get away from fossil fuels. We’re here signing our lives away.”
She even traveled all the way to Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, for the international climate negotiations late last year where she met with frontline communities from Africa and Europe.
Her work with the Vessel Project of Louisiana aims to help people with emergency needs, putting resources into communities “so that they can fight for themselves and for their community and against the oil and gas build-out.”
“They don’t protect us”
The scramble for new gas exports is widely seen as a serious threat to global climate targets, locking in gas infrastructure for several decades. But the Biden administration, as well as the state government in Louisiana, are supporting more LNG exports, justifying the build-out on energy security grounds.
At the same time, there is increasing scrutiny from regulators and investors on the climate impact of new fossil fuel infrastructure. In response, LNG companies are promising to deploy carbon capture and sequestration technologies, and source their gas from “responsible” drillers.
But existing facilities are experiencing pollution problems even during normal operations. The report from Louisiana Bucket Brigade finds that Cameron LNG is having persistent trouble with some of its equipment. The repeated failure of thermal oxidizers, a combustion device, has resulted in 67 accidental pollution releases since operations began several years ago, averaging two releases per month.
In a statement to Gas Outlook, Anya McInnis, a spokesperson for Cameron LNG, said: “Cameron LNG is in compliance with state and federal regulatory agency reporting requirements. Together with our partners, Cameron LNG is committed to producing socially responsible LNG.”
Hiatt says that state regulators are not taking meaningful action to protect residents, even after investigating the matter and coming to the conclusion that Cameron LNG violated air permits in separate incidents.
The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality did not respond to questions from Gas Outlook about the Louisiana LNG industry.
“There’s no consequences. It’s hardly even a slap on the wrist,” Hiatt said. “So, what can we do in a place that already has three [LNG terminals], and they’re looking to put eight more?”
“Our state agencies, such as DEQ — they don’t protect us. A lot of them have their hand in industry,” Ozane said. “They are all for industry just like everyone else in the state, so we need federal guidelines to make sure these industries are compliant.”
In the meantime, the LNG building boom continues. For Allaire, things could get worse. While Calcasieu Pass LNG is less than a mile away, a separate proposed LNG project, Commonwealth LNG, would be even closer to his property. “Their main compressors and power generation gas turbines are going to be about 1,250 feet from my residence. And their flare stacks are going to be about 750 feet from my property boundary,” he told Gas Outlook, referring to Commonwealth LNG.
Allaire is intimately familiar with the industry’s practices. He spent 30 years working for BP and Amoco, working in both refining and drilling. But he takes issue with the export frenzy, which he warns is driving up domestic gas prices, hurting Americans around the country. Indeed, prices at Henry Hub, an important benchmark price, have soared over the past year alongside the increase in LNG exports.
“All that money is a huge transfer of wealth into the hands of these folks who are shipping, producing, liquefying, and sending overseas. Every American is throwing dollars out of your electric bill, dollars out of your food costs. It’s all going straight into their pockets, and that’s why they are raking in billions and billions of dollars in profit,” Allaire said.
He thinks the rush to export LNG including Louisiana LNG is also unsustainable. “It’s just like a huge science experiment — how much CO2 can we get into the atmosphere until the environment collapses on us,” he said. “It’s short-sighted. This is all about profit.”