Travis Dardar, an indigenous fisherman in Cameron, Louisiana, has a front-row view of the expansion of the liquified natural gas (LNG) industry’s export capacity on the Gulf Coast — and it isn’t pretty. “It disgusts me what man is doing to the planet,” Dardar told me as I photographed flares at the recently built Venture Global Calcasieu Pass LNG export facility from his boat out in the Calcasieu Ship Channel, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
I met Travis and his wife Nicole Dardar on March 17, before attending an air quality permit hearing held by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) in Cameron for another proposed LNG export project by Commonwealth LNG, a Texas-based company.
The couple wasn’t aware of the permit hearing for Commonwealth LNG’s new export terminal project until I mentioned it to them. But they have plenty to say about why state regulators should deny the air quality permit for an export facility being built on the other side of the channel from Venture Global’s existing LNG facility. They told me that the facility is already polluting their air, flaring almost nonstop since December, in addition to the noise and light pollution the facility creates, first from construction and now from operations.
The Dardars live about a mile from Venture Global’s new facility and already question their safety due to the seemingly constant chemical releases before the plant is even fully online, let alone what life would be like with the second one across from their front door.
“Nobody told us what the blast zone for the plant is,” Travis said. The couple both figure if the facility does blow their family would be killed instantly — a fear that adds to the ongoing stress they have from trying to recover from Hurricane Laura, which destroyed almost everything they own.
“I’m worried about the health impacts the plant might have on my family,” Nicole told me. She noticed that since the flares at the plant started, she often gets headaches. The uptick in crime and road accidents since construction at the plant started also worries her. “I no longer feel like this is a safe place for our kids.”
Venture Global has reported several incidents to LDEQ, since it recently started the first phase of its operations. Those incident reports can be found on the regulator’s site — if you can figure out how to navigate it — except for more recent ones, including three that occurred after the March 17 permit hearing took place. The reports show that the facility has released numerous chemicals, including benzene, a known human carcinogen, and methane.
I asked Venture Global why there is nearly constant flaring at the facility, and if the company wanted to comment on the mounting number of incidents plaguing the plant as it ramps up operations, but didn’t hear back before my deadline.
The Dardars believe they are going to be forced to move whether Commonwealth LNG’s proposed project is permitted or not. Before Venture Global’s LNG export facility was done being constructed, the company announced it planned to build Venture Global CP2 LNG, a second project that will greatly increase the company’s footprint so that it extends right across the street from the Dardars’ residence.
“There aren’t many places I can go and still be able to make a living,” said Travis, who primarily makes his living harvesting oysters. He is a member of the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe and grew up on the island, which is facing some of the fastest land erosion along the Gulf Coast. He moved his family to Cameron about seven years ago. By that time, life on the Isle de Jean Charles had grown untenable.
Other family members of the Dardars’ who lived on the Isle de Jean Charles have left too, after taking the state up on its offer to relocate residents further inland, with federal funds granted to resettle the community out of harm’s way.
However, even if the Dardars have to leave Cameron, Travis is not considering moving inland where he would no longer be able to make a living as a fisherman. He is only considering relocating somewhere else on the Gulf Coast, although available properties he has seen listed for sale are more expensive than what his land in Cameron would likely be appraised for now, since the new plant has robbed the area of its natural beauty. He and others I spoke to in the area are anticipating buyout offers, though none have been contacted about buyouts as of yet. The Dardars would welcome a fair offer, but are preparing to battle for just compensation if need be.
Contentious Hearing in Cameron
About 50 people attended the LDEQ hearing on Commonwealth LNG’s proposed export facility’s draft 850-page air quality permit application. If approved, the permit would allow a massive natural gas liquefaction and export facility to emit 3.5 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, two known carcinogens, and other emissions that are harmful to the environment, including particulates and oxides of nitrogen.
Most of the opponents of the permit who commented at the hearing were environmental advocates from across the state. They cited the detrimental environmental impacts the plant will have, from increasing coastal erosion to destroying critical habitat for migratory birds. They also detailed the detrimental climate impact increasing LNG export will have and how expanding export capacity of natural gas is contrary to the need to lower carbon emission in order to stop warming the planet.
On the other side, local proponents of the permit expressed support not only for the project that Commonwealth LNG proposes, but the expansion of the LNG export industry in general. They welcomed the jobs and tax revenue to Cameron and asserted the increased capacity to export LNG will re-establish energy independence, which they suggested has been diminished by the Biden administration’s stated aim to combat climate change. It will also make it possible to help Europe break free from its dependence on Russian natural gas, they argued.
At the start of the proceedings, Commonwealth LNG was offered 20 minutes to make a presentation about its project. No one at the hearing identified themselves as a rep for the company, even to decline the offer.
The hearing lasted about two hours and turned into a debate over the expansion of LNG export facilities along the Gulf Coast, with only a few of the speakers addressing actionable issues with the specific permit application being considered. A few of the speakers made multiple comments countering comments made by each other. A handful of industry lobbyist didn’t comment but took notes and at times snickered at comments made by opponents of the project.
James Hiatt, with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental advocacy group, said it seemed like the regulators had already decided to grant the permit before the hearing started. He mused that the requested air quality permit is actually a permit to pollute, adding that “we have got to act swiftly to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and we need to stop this false narrative about there being anything clean about this gas.”
He took issue that the agency didn’t make the 850-page application searchable, making it too difficult and time consuming for the general public to analyze before the comment period was set to end. He requested that the public comment period, which was set to close on March 21, be extended to give people the time to properly respond.
His comments, suggesting the agency already decided to grant the permit before the hearing took place, and his request to extended the comment period, were echoed other opponents of the permit request, including Wilma Subra, a technical advisor with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
Subra opened her comments by questioning the speed at which the LDEQ is moving the permitting process along for such a large and consequential facility, pointing out that the agency issued an administrative completeness letter to Commonwealth LNG the same day it received its application. She expressed doubt it was possible for the agency to review the lengthy application in one day, reminding them that such reviews are done to make sure the applicant included all of the material regulators need make a determination, before moving the process along.
Subra continued by outlining deficiencies she found in the application, from the company’s site selection process to environmental impacts, including how the facility would change the hydrology of the Calcasieu Pass where it enters the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, Subra objected to the LDEQ’s failure to take into account the cumulative impacts of toxic air emissions from Commonwealth LNG’s proposed facility, Venture Global’s newly built facility, and the one it is building next to it.
“The proposed location is subject to extreme weather events, tropical storms, and flooding,” she said, pointing out that those at the hearing are well aware of the fact that hurricanes caused massive destruction in 2020, adding another reason to the litany of reasons that the permit application should be denied.
John C. Allaire, an environmental engineer who lives adjacent to the proposed site for Commonwealth LNG’s project, described the environmental harm the project would cause as catastrophic and echoed some of the same impacts to the environment that Subra brought up.
Allaire also asserted that increasing exports of LNG will dramatically boost domestic energy prices, and stated that the government can’t ensure that increasing the area’s LNG export capacity will help Europe because LNG is sold by the facilities exporting it to the highest bidder. He pointed out that most of the LNG exports are currently going to China, which he described as “America’s largest economic competitor and its greatest geopolitical adversary,” adding that “China is backing Putin in his brutal attempt to crush democracies and spread authoritarianism, as he is now doing to innocent civilians in Ukraine.”
Those in favor of the project, like Katie Armentor, who was born and raised in Cameron Parish, countered many of the objections with industry talking points, like the misnomer that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” and other points that were unrelated to the permit application.
“That only one landowner showed up in opposition should speak volumes,” she stated, referencing Allaire. She added that she thinks it is unfair to blame the LNG industry for contributing to the recent hurricanes because the area had hurricanes before the LNG plants started operating.
“Why don’t you go home,” she said taking aim at opponents from outside the area she claimed where chastising Cameron Parish residents while contributing to climate change by disposing of all of the products they use, like cell phones and face masks — comments that leaned into hackneyed climate science denial by suggesting personal responsibility plays more of a role in climate change than curtailing the fossil fuel industry. “Let us decide our own future,” she added.
Clearly, she hadn’t spoken the locals I met before the hearing who were unaware that it was taking place. They told me they would have commented against it and the permit applications for Venture Global’s other LNG plants had they known about the hearings in advance.
The day after the comment period was set to expire I asked the LDEQ if the comment period had been extended and if not, why not? Greg Langley, a spokesperson for the LDEQ let me know that the agency hadn’t decided yet. I asked again on March 28. Late that afternoon, Langley let me know that LDEQ decided to extended the period an additional two weeks until April 12, and that information about the extension is now on the agency’s site.
I asked Subra if she was aware that an extension to the comment period was granted. She was not, and found it doubtful that the others who requested an extension were aware either.
“I encourage people opposed to the project to weigh in,” she said. She advised those hoping to convince LDEQ to reject the permit to comment on flaws in the permit itself that violate existing regulations, which could lead to a rejection of it. While comments about the plant’s relation to climate change will be part of the agency’s record, she explained that “the agency does not have any regulations on climate change that give the them grounds to deny a permit.”
President Biden’s Continued Support For Fracking Industry Re-emerges
Commonwealth LNG’s proposed export facility is one of almost 20 LNG export projects seeking permits on the Gulf Coast that, if built, will greatly increase the United States’ export capacity. The facilities use an energy-intensive process to transform natural gas into LNG so that it can be loaded on to tankers. If the export facilities are built, more wells will need to be drilled and fracked to supply natural gas to the LNG plants, which will require costly infrastructure, including more pipelines, to transport the natural gas to the facilities.
Although oil and gas industry supporters continue to claim that natural gas is a “bridge fuel,” climate scientists have shown otherwise. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the advantage of using it is negated by the methane emitted in its production. Methane, the main component of natural gas, heats the planet at a much greater rate than carbon dioxide in the short term.
President Biden’s recent declaration that the United States will expand LNG exports to Europe so they won’t be reliant on Russian oil, is getting fierce pushback from climate advocates. They point out that move is contrary to the president’s own climate agenda that calls for moving toward clean energy. And scientists, including Sandra Steingraber, Peter Kalmus, Robert W. Howarth, Michael E. Mann, and Mark Jacobson, wrote a letter to Biden calling on him to stop facilitating more fuel extraction and the building of infrastructure for the fossil fuel industry.
Though Biden ditched the phrase “bridge fuel” when referring to natural gas in the early days of his presidential campaign and curtailed his support for fracking after pushback from environmentalist, his calls for ramping up LNG exports shows cognitive dissonance.
The president offered no details on how he plans to make this happen, yet the LNG industry is already working with the banking industry to move in that direction, according to a Bloomberg article.
“The U.S. State Department is not in charge of directing U.S. cargo, the market is,” Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy & Climate Program, said during a press conference held by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade on the topic of expanding LNG exports.
He also pointed out that expanding the capacity to export LNG will take at least four years, both for the exporters, and the importers. Lengthy construction timelines, coupled with pressure from climate advocates on regulators to deny new permits when the need to transition toward renewable energy is no longer up for debate, will turn newly constructed projects into stranded assets.
The War In Ukraine Is a Climate Story
During a March 16 panel discussion about the war in Ukraine’s connection to climate change, Mark Hertsgaard, founder of the media advocacy organization Covering Climate Now, pointed out that the war in Ukraine is giving those touting a “drill baby drill” agenda, whatever the facts may be, a platform once again. Less than two weeks later Biden’s action proved him right.
Since war likely contributed to the scarcity of reporting on February’s harrowing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the panel discussed ways of incorporating the existential threat of climate change that the report spells out, when reporting on the war, and why climate reporting remains paramount.
“The climate justice movement has won all the arguments for transformational action,” panelist Naomi Klein, senior correspondent for The Intercept, warned. “What we risk losing, in the fog of war, is our nerve. Because nothing changes the subject like extreme violence, even violence that is being actively subsidized by the soaring price of oil.”
For inspiration in staying on course reporting climate issues, she cited the head of the Ukrainian delegation to the IPCC, Svitlana Krakovska, who reportedly told colleagues in a closed-door IPCC meeting, “We will not surrender in Ukraine. And we hope the world will not surrender in building a climate-resilient future.” Krakovska’s comments were so strong that a Russian delegate on the panel apologized for his country’s actions.
Today the IPCC released another segment of its report that stresses the urgency to move away from fossil fuels now. “Half measures will not halve emissions by 2030,” Inger Andersen, Undersecretary of the United Nations said when the report was released.
Gulf Coast residents like the Dardars are already dealing with the impacts of the climate crisis that February’s IPCC report warns about. On top of that, they are now at risk of being displaced by the very industry that is accelerating global warming.
“I watched the environment go to shit,” Travis told me as the sun set in Cameron after taking me out on the water. “It sucks to see no future with this going on.” His words echoed the IPCC’s waring that if we delay taking action to reduce carbon emissions, the catastrophic impacts of climate change would make our world unrecognizable.