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.
Caught in the green mesh are several juvenile red drum fish and tiny, translucent shrimp. He cups them in his hand before releasing them back in 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.
The Commonwealth project, he said, risks reducing natural drainage and the tidal ebb and flow of water through his wetlands and ponds to and from the Gulf of Mexico, with what he predicted will be ecologically devastating consequences.
“They’re going to drain all these estuaries,” Allaire said. “They’re going to kill everything in there.”
Worst of all, Allaire said, the United States should be saving its natural gas for itself instead of selling it to the highest bidder overseas.
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.
Nationally, the tracker identifies 27 new or expanding LNG terminal facilities that have been constructed or proposed, which collectively have the potential to emit as much as 117 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, said Alexandra Shaykevich, who assembled the tracker.
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.
More movement for the industry could be close at hand. 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.
In 2021, the European Union got about 40 percent of its gas from Russia, and experts say Russia slowed that flow in the months leading up to its war. Europe is in a particularly precarious situation, as it moves toward renewable energy but is still addicted to fossil fuels and is under pressure to reduce 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’
Expanding LNG infrastructure, and potentially locking in natural gas exports over the long term, has spurred intense opposition from many leading environmentalists nationally, and along this stretch of the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Texas.
“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.”
But Congress appears willing to go along with expanding 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.”
Along the Gulf Coast, business leaders and industry supporters are also welcoming the push to expand LNG exports, as a way to boost local economies.
Yet the urgent rhetoric for boosting LNG has also energized opposition from critics who oppose a buildout of LNG facilities, which pollute the air and add large amounts of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, as scientists increasingly warn that the world faces 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.”
Surging LNG Exports
LNG liquefaction and export terminals take natural gas and super-cool it to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, converting it to a liquid.
In the process, which is extremely energy-intensive, the product shrinks in volume by about 600 times. The LNG is stored in giant, chilled and insulated tanks. Then, it is put on 1,000-foot-long vessels that move the LNG to markets in Asia, South America or Europe, and can hold enough gas to heat and power tens of thousands of homes for a year.
The industry has emerged in the last 15 years after new drilling methods for extracting natural gas from underground shale formations, called fracking, proliferated and produced a glut of cheap natural gas that can be sold at a premium overseas.
Much of the activity can be found along the 250 miles between New Orleans and Port Arthur, Texas, with Southwest Louisiana and Port Arthur emerging as a major LNG export hub.
The low-lying region, where the land is losing a battle with the sea, has been slammed by some of the most deadly and powerful hurricanes on record in the last couple of 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.
Piles of debris remain stacked along roadsides and many homes still have blue tarps on their damaged roofs.
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 has one other export terminal planned, Port Arthur LNG, proposed by Sempra Infrastructure.
Cheniere Energy has its Sabine Pass terminal located about as far south and west in Louisiana as possible, directly across the Sabine River from Port Arthur. It, too, converted what had been intended to be an LNG import facility, giving it a head start on 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.
In March, the Biden administration gave Cheniere Energy additional flexibility to boost its shipments. At the same time, the Department of Energy has already said it expects the United States could see a 20 percent increase in exports this year over 2021, in part because of the newly operating Calcasieu Pass terminal.
The Biden administration finds itself pinched between a short-term need to help NATO allies with fossil fuels and its commitment to move the country to a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and a net-zero carbon emission future by 2050.
Security and Energy: Shifting Sands
Samantha Gross, a fellow and director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, considers the extraordinary moment, with Russia destroying the cities of Ukraine, Biden rallying NATO allies with promises of military and energy support, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issuing a dire warning on 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.”
But any significant new amount of gas exports from the United States, she said, would not be available for three or four years, at least. LNG export capacity is maxed out, with companies that operate existing terminals already committed to 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 bind.
“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.
Export terminals can cost $9 to $12 billion each to develop, and typically construction can only proceed if the energy companies building them get bank financing. Most that are proposed will likely not get built, he said.
But expanded LNG exports could help the United States and its allies navigate the current crisis while still working on moving to renewable energy, Dismukes said.
The key, he said, is to watch during the next several months whether companies that have proposed new export facilities announce they have signed long-term contracts with customers and have made final investment decisions.
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 yellow brick sanctuary is about 40 minutes by car south of New Orleans, on the west side of the Mississippi River in a community settled by freed slaves in 1869 who were seeking the economic benefits of owning their own property. It remains an African American community.
The lots are small, large enough for a single trailer home, a double wide or a small house. A graveyard is located next to a playground. The four lanes of state Highway 23 divide the community, with 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.”
African Americans in the parish have suffered among the most from hurricanes, Johnson said. Most recently Ida tore through the parish and devastated the nearby African American community of Ironton.
The Plaquemines LNG export terminal is to be built in two phases on several hundred acres, eventually producing 20 million tons per year of LNG. The company has told regulators it will meet or exceed all environmental regulations.
The Environmental Integrity Project says regulatory documents show the terminal, with two proposed 720-megawatt power plants, has the potential to emit more than 8 million tons of greenhouse gas a 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 deep into his faith to find the source of his concerns about health and climate. 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’
Two hundred fifty miles west along the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur, Texas, is an economic donut, where energy wealth surrounds a depopulating urban core with the stacks and tanks of multiple refineries and chemical plants making up the skyline.
About three-quarters of its residents are Black or Hispanic. More than 25 percent live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Hurricane Harvey, even after being downgraded to a tropical storm, dumped 60 inches of rain here, causing widespread flooding that permanently chased many residents away. In some neighborhoods, people find themselves living near abandoned, dilapidated homes. Many other residential and commercial properties have been leveled, leaving behind patches of grass 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. A former city councilman who fights climate change and environmental injustice, Beard pointed to where the local TV station was located before it moved out 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. The people who are hurt the most, benefit the least. 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.”
At least not for Port Arthur, which will get the brunt of added 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.
In Cameron Parish, Allaire has come to know what to expect if Commonwealth LNG gets its permits and financing and constructs the liquidation plant and export terminal.
Over the last three years, he has watched and heard the construction of Calcasieu Pass export terminal, including the thump-thump of ground-shaking pile driving, just across the nearby ship channel.
Now, at night, the new terminal is lit up like Las Vegas, except all in white, dimming the stars, with the added light from a bright flare that often burns off 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 the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group with a long history of fighting for environmental justice and defending communities near petrochemical plants, to slow or stop the facility.
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.
Photos in his computer show gatherings of family and friends, fishing and eating seafood feasts.
His property is like a nature 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.
With folders full of printouts from the U.S. Energy Information Agency and from environmental assessments of the Commonwealth project, he attacks the proposal from local and international angles. 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.
LNG exports are increasing to China, a fierce economic competitor that is becoming increasingly close to Putin, he noted. Higher natural gas prices in the United States over the last year can in part be blamed on LNG exports reducing the supply available to Americans, he said.
Every person is paying more for natural gas, for plastic products made from natural gas, for food grown with fertilizers made from natural gas, he said. “It’s capitalism at its finest, for sure.”
‘We Are Tired of This Fight’
James Hiatt, the southwest Louisiana coordinator for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, came out last week, and had lots to say, when the Louisiana state regulators convened a public hearing in the town of Cameron on 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 on 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, a chemist with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, said state officials were failing to take into account the cumulative impacts of toxic air emissions of both the proposed Commonwealth facility and its already operating neighbor, Calcasieu Pass.
“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 advocates see LNG as a long-term product for them, one that employs thousands during terminal construction. And, for the three terminals that are operating in the region, they collectively employ about 850 to run them, said R.B. Smith, vice president of workforce development for the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, a regional business development group.
For many, salaries can start in the $70,000 to $80,000 a year range, which can climb into the six figures with overtime.
They also distance themselves from 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 right, his idyllic marsh cannot survive the construction of the Commonwealth LNG export terminal.
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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Natural gas should be saved for higher uses than burning in power plants to provide electricity or for heating homes or sending overseas, he said. Rather, it should be saved as a raw material 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.”