Credit: Jesse Lu Baum

At a poorly attended meeting at the Belle Chasse Branch Library, residents of Plaquemines Parish had a chance to voice their opinions and concerns about new natural gas infrastructure: a natural gas liquefaction plant and new natural gas pipeline (Gator Express Pipeline), which would tap into existing pipelines. The residents were scant, outnumbered by businessmen, and matched in number by representatives of local environmental non-profits. Nine people gave comments on the project.

Plaquemines Parish is the thin tongue of Louisiana that stretches into the Gulf of Mexico. Low-lying and swampy, it is part of the final stretch of land bordering the Mississippi River before it empties into the Gulf, and is home to just under 24,000 residents according to 2012 census estimates. As part of the “sportsman’s paradise” that is Louisiana, the area has a large economy based off fishing and is also an agricultural production area.

It is also home to many large-scale industrial projects and entangled in a network of pipelines, many of which link to offshore oil and gas wells. As a hub for the fossil fuel industry, Plaquemines poses a series of paradoxes—wealthy in resources, yet with a median income below the national average. Ramping up petrochemical and fossil fuel development, despite the dire reality of climate change. Investing in new infrastructures such as pipelines, power plants, and natural gas liquefaction plants, despite an extreme vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding.

A Very Private Comment

To successfully obtain all permits needed for construction to move forward the LNG terminal and pipeline, which would be owned by a company called Venture Global, needs to participate in two series of “public input opportunities,” generally known as public comments. Public comments are usually held in a meeting format where an audience listens to their neighbors, as well as activists, industry spokespeople, and sometimes paid actors, give comments on a proposed project. However, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate natural gas projects and LNG terminals, has changed this format.

“Some of the meetings got out of control,” says Christine Allen, one of the FERC representatives at the meeting in Belle Chasse.

She explains that meetings got rowdy, as people came to protest the development of natural gas pipelines and power plants. People felt “uncomfortable” speaking in favor of the pipelines. Allen says this happened mainly in Northeastern states. All three of the states which have banned natural gas drilling (‘fracking”) are in this region: Maryland, New York, and Vermont.

Put another way, activists and engaged stakeholders were able to successfully stigmatize fossil fuel development that threatened both their land and the future of the climate.

The solution FERC came up with was to have individuals give their comments in private, to a court reporter. At the Belle Chasse meeting, this occurred in a tiny staff kitchen. The comments themselves will not be available for over three weeks, after which they will be posted onto part of the FERC website. This effectively means that attendees of a public comment meeting will never hear anyone voicing their opinions or concerns about the pipeline and terminal.

A map of the proposed Gator Express pipeline. The red box is the terminal site.

The Lay of the Land

Plaquemines Parish is the southernmost point of Louisiana, jutting into the gulf. It is repeatedly battered by hurricanes and faces dramatic land loss due to wetland degradation and sea-level rise unless Louisiana can take drastic steps to shore up the land and restore critical habitat. Though flooding is a critical concern, and the proposed Venture Global terminal is in an area that is projected to see increases in flooding, this risk is not included in FERC’s environmental impact statement.

Currently, the project has already passed through the initial stages required for approval of the project with FERC, though there are a multitude of organizations (such as the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers) that must approve the project as well. FERC’s multi-hundred page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is in the draft stage (it may be revised if new details emerge about the plant or if concerns voiced in the comment period are deemed worthy of examination), is notable for a number of reasons. It includes not just environmental impacts, but economic as well. No one environmental concern can disqualify the project, which will have a permanent footprint of over 629 acres for the terminal alone, the report is considered “holistic.” The report also examines the economic impacts of the project.

Though the report does briefly discuss the impacts of climate change, it claims that there is no way to attribute significant contributions of greenhouse gas emissions to the development, though it will be processing 20 million metric tons of LNG per year. There is also the potential for methane leaks, which occur at a rate of 2.3 percent per year, according to a 2018 study published in the journal “Science”.

Methane is a greenhouse gas with much higher warming potential than carbon dioxide. This is because it is at a lower saturation point in the atmosphere. At an equal volume to carbon dioxide, it has a warming potential that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And the more the earth warms, the more methane is released from natural reserves such as arctic permafrost.

Reverend Tyrone Edwards, one of the very few attendees of the public comment meeting who lived in the area, was critical of the promises of well-paying jobs.

“I never get excited about the job numbers. During my life, I’ve seen just about every company come here and promise jobs.”

The Venture Global has stated that the project would provide 250 well-paying jobs. A spokesperson for the company also told Big Easy Magazine that each of those jobs means more service-industry jobs for the region. According to the EIS by Venture Global’s own estimates, only ten percent of the cost of construction would be spent locally. Venture Global has also already applied for a ten-year tax break on the property taxes, under the Louisiana Industrial Tax exemption program. Including exemptions that Venture Global has applied for under the Quality Jobs program, these tax breaks are expected to reach $83.6 million in the first year, according to reporting by The Advocate.

Rev. Edwards also voiced concerns about both air and water pollution, saying he was concerned that digging for the pipelines could disturb or damage old pipelines beneath the marsh. He also worries about the emissions from the terminal, which will also house a gas-burning power plant. The EIS supports this concern, concluding that combined with other powerplants in the area, the LNG terminal will have a significant negative impact on local air quality.

The EIS also takes several problematic stances on the environmental impact itself. The report suggests that since the area is already heavily impacted by industrial activity, an additional development will not have a significant impact.

The report also points out that the area will not need additional dredging in the river. However, as the natural gas will be loaded onto ships, the ships will need to release saltwater at the loading site that they take on at sea. This will impact both the temperature and salinity of the river at the terminal site, both of which can impact fish and aquatic plant communities, as well as oxygen levels in the water.

After the public comment period finishes on January 7th, FERC will respond to the comments and revide the EIS. The final report will be released and the 5-member board of commissioners (appointed by the US president) will vote on it. If it makes it to this stage, Allen reports that it will likely garner FERC’s approval.

Money, Money, Money

Venture Global argues that natural gas has become an important global commodity, and this is true. However, this also ignores the instability of global fuel markets, and the potential for the so-called “carbon bubble”—the boom of cheap fossil fuels that are not taxed based on environmental impact—to burst.

In his 1967 address to the  Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King raised the question of why in a country with so much wealth, there is so much poverty. Oil, as an historic backbone of our economy, was featured in the speech:

“There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” 

Dalon Bienemy, a high school teacher at Plaquemines Parish Learning Center, says that the development is where his students should look to find jobs after high school.

“I am definitely in favor. There’s not a lot of stuff down here. This is the future.”

Is it?

Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you enjoyed this coverage, please check out her other article on L’eau Est La Vie, the group protesting The Bayou Bridge Pipeline.

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