The U.S. may soon export more gas to the EU, but that will complicate climate goals
Sitting on a bench at Calcasieu Point Landing marina in Southwest Louisiana, James Hiatt recently looked across the water to forests in the distance. The Lake Charles, La. native says this dock is one of the few spots where he can watch the sun sink into the skyline without the sight of a petrochemical plant.
"Anywhere else you go on the Calcasieu River and in Calcasieu Parish, and you look out over towards the sunset, over to the west, you watch the sunset go down on top of a tower or a flare or a smokestack," Hiatt says.
Soon more natural vistas here could be lost.
The Gulf Coast is at the epicenter of the fossil fuel industry's push to increase natural gas exports across the globe. That would require building massive terminals and processing plants to super-cool gas to -260 degrees Fahrenheit, turning it into liquified natural gas, or LNG, so it can be transported by ship.
More than 20 facilities are proposed between Texas and Florida, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If they are built, the facilities would be largely concentrated in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana in areas already burdened by air pollution and climate-fueled storms. In just two Louisiana parishes, at least nine plants are planned, including three on the land near Calcasieu Point Landing.
Several plants received permits but sat in limbo as the companies proposing the projects secured buyers. Now business may be about to boom.
Russia's war in Ukraine boosts U.S. gas
Despite the world's climate goals, the war in Ukraine and Europe's scramble for alternatives to Russian gas has boosted support for increasing LNG exports in the U.S. and other countries. As Russia's squeeze on Ukraine tightened in March, President Joe Biden pledged to send an additional 15 billion cubic tons of gas to Europe by the end of the year.
Even LNG industry groups agree that goal could be met with the seven terminals already operating, as found by an April report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. But long-term, that gas wouldn't be guaranteed to those countries.
"Unless, the European utilities and other purchasers step up right now to buy additional long-term contracts with U.S. LNG projects and own that gas," says Fred Hutchison, president of the industry group LNG Allies.
More European countries are considering that now and Hutchison says those long-term contracts could soon spur new construction.
Some locals are opposed to building more gas export terminals
In southwest Louisiana, that buildout would follow decades of industrial development, that sends air pollution into nearby low-income or Black neighborhoods, says Roishetta Ozane, a local community organizer with the environmental nonprofit Healthy Gulf.
Close to the Gulf of Mexico and crisscrossed by pipelines, the region is a prime location for the industry to move goods in and out. But the same factors that have been a boon for companies have left the coastal community increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
In 2020, back-to-back hurricanes smacked Cameron and Calcasieu parishes, including Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm. Within months, those disasters were closely followed by a winter storm and heavy rain events as residents were still recovering. Despite the area's long dependence on industrial plants for jobs, Ozane says she's watched more residents connect the fossil fuel industry to the intensifying flooding and storms.
"The folks right now are beginning to talk about climate change because they see all of this stuff happening so close together," Ozane says.
The recent trauma from those storms has left some wary of adding more plants to the region, especially those with the carbon footprint of an LNG facility, says Ozane. One of the largest facilities proposed, Driftwood LNG, has the potential to emit close to 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses per year, according to state permits. That's about the same annual footprint as the entire country of Costa Rica. And the plant will operate for decades.
"Once it starts operating, now we have what, a 30-year commitment that the citizens here have to deal with?" Ozane says. "That crisis will long be over in Ukraine. And we will still be waking up every day with, to the flares, to the smells, to the smoke, to the threat of an explosion every day."
Building new infrastructure without getting rid of problems from old infrastructure will "make that problem worse"
That multi-decade commitment would also lock the world into several more decades of carbon emissions, says economist Clark Williams-Derry with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, adding that would make it more difficult for the U.S. to meet goals set under the Paris Climate agreement.
"Building new infrastructure without, you know, clearly getting rid of, or abating problems from the old infrastructure, that's just going to make that problem worse," he says.
Hutchison argues that finding lower-carbon alternatives to coal — widely considered the most polluting fossil fuel — should be the primary focus. He says it's not realistic to believe gas won't have a role in limiting global warming, adding that after meeting with representatives of European governments, they believe "gas will have a role to play in meeting Europe's climate ambitions."
"We'd love to see a future where the world runs on nuclear fusion or on the beautiful solar resources that exist, but we also have some realities that are staring us in the face," Hutchison says. "So in short, we think the world's going to need gas for a very long time."
But Ozane says that's not what environmental justice communities, like those in southwest Louisiana, need.
"Everybody is saying, 'Roishetta, why are you doing this? You can't win against oil and gas. You're a black woman. They're gonna blackball you'," she says. "My children are very much connected to this land. This is where they were born. They have every right to live here and total freedom and total peace."
Ozane and her allies are developing a different vision for the region's future — one that places more value on industries other than oil and gas, like tourism. She wants to see her Southwest Louisiana take advantage of its natural beauty by cleaning up beaches and prioritizing local waterways for things like sport fishing, while developing more renewable energy.
But if it's more LNG plants coming, Ozane says residents won't let that happen without a fight.
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