Environmental Advocates Say Public Comment Is Taking a Back Seat in Biden’s Push to Export More LNG

Federal agencies evade questions about potential bias in the handling of New Fortress Energy’s application for a floating LNG facility off the Louisiana coast.
Large liquefied natural gas tanker ship docked at an LNG export terminal in Louisiana
LNG tanker at Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass LNG export facility on the border of Louisiana and Texas. Credit: Julie Dermansky

During a virtual meeting on May 11, the public had an opportunity to comment on a proposed floating LNG export facility 16 miles off the coast of Grand Isle, Louisiana, a barrier island that was badly crippled last year by Hurricane Ida and is still recovering.

Proposed by New Fortress Energy (NFE), the planned facility will be a floating offshore export terminal that would treat, liquefy, and store methane gas before loading it onto ships headed abroad. If realized, the terminal could export up to the equivalent of 145 billion cubic feet of the fossil fuel per year. Its application comes shortly after the Biden administration committed in March “to make available up to 15 billion cubic meters additional LNG this year” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s attempts to reduce dependency on Russian gas.

The federal agencies responsible for the initial permitting phase of the project explained that this is the first of many opportunities that the public will have to weigh in on this complex project. Matthew Meacham, a representative from the United States Coast Guard (USCG), and Yvette Fields, Director of the Maritime Administration office of Deepwater Port Licensing (MARAD), stressed in their opening remarks that neither agency is “a proponent or opponent for this proposed New Fortress Energy, Louisiana, FLNG project or any other deepwater port application.” But some of the meeting’s participants — including Wilma Subra, the technical advisor for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network — were left questioning the authenticity of that claim.

In his opening remarks at the beginning of the meeting, Meacham recognized two third-party “team members,” Hollaway Environmental + Communications Services and EDGE Engineering and Science, which he said are “assisting us on the New Fortress Energy, Louisiana, FLNG project.” He then turned the mic over to Connor Stokes of Hollaway to moderate the public meeting. 

Both Hollaway and EDGE, which are working on behalf of the permitting agencies, also offer services to companies like New Fortress Energy to help them through the permitting process. Subra, who has commented on countless permit applications across the country for decades, told me this was the first public comment meeting she has participated in that was moderated by a third party. She thinks that the permitting agencies’ use of these third-party companies represents a conflict of interest due to the fact that these consultants specialize in working with companies like NFE.

On a call after the meeting, Subra also described the handling of the meeting as blatantly biased toward the permit applicant.

“Usually speakers are informed of the length of time they will have to speak, which is usually five or ten minutes, and in a lot of cases you can come back after everyone gets a chance to comment and give the rest of your comments if you have more to say,” she said.

But in this case, speakers only learned how much time they had to comment when Stokes began moderating the session. Each participant was allotted three minutes to comment and could speak a second time for an additional three minutes after all the participants who wanted to comment had done so. 

“Not knowing in advance how long you can speak handicaps participants’ ability to prepare concise comments,” Subra explained. 

During the meeting, nine people commented on the project and only a few of them opted to speak a second time. As a result, almost half of the two hours allotted for the meeting were used as a placeholder in case anyone joined the meeting late and wanted to comment.

Despite the abundance of time that could have been made available to participants, Stokes silenced Subra’s audio mid-sentence when her three minutes were up. After abruptly cutting off Subra, Stokes adjourned the meeting for a ten-minute break. Subra was unable to rejoin the meeting and use her additional three minutes because she was at the hospital tending to her husband. 

Stokes later let Louisiana State Rep. Joseph Orgeron, the only person who spoke in favor of the project, go over his allotted three minutes. Instead of chiding Orgeron for exceeding his time as Stokes did with Subra, he thanked Orgeron for his comments. 

“The moderator’s biases were astounding,” David Levy, owner of Petrotechnologies and an acting member of Louisiana’s Oilfield Site Restoration Commission, said on a call after the meeting. During the meeting, Levy stated that he was against permitting the floating LNG project until all of the thousands of methane-emitting abandoned wells in Louisiana are plugged and secured by the oil and gas industry. 

I asked MARAD who had decided how long the comment period would be, and who had decided not to share that information in advance with those who registered to participate in the meeting. Brooke Brzozowske with MARAD’s Office of Public Affairs told me that she was working on getting answers to my questions, but failed to answer them by my deadline or give an indication of when I could expect a response. 

Some of the other concerns expressed by those opposing the project were that the permitting agencies were not taking into account the cumulative impacts of rapidly expanding the LNG export industry in the Gulf of Mexico, and whether or not the government will be able to ensure the exported LNG goes to Europe, to help the continent’s transition away from Russian gas after the country’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition, Subra, Scott Eustis, community science director with Healthy Gulf, and others brought up that the project’s proposed location puts it in the bullseye of storm systems passing through the Gulf. Some questioned workers’ safety on a floating facility during extreme weather, and what kind of an impact extended power outages might have on it.

These aren’t arbitrary concerns. Shell’s floating LNG facility off the coast of Australia has been mired with problems nearly since it first shipped cargo in 2019. Last December, a fire onboard caused a power outage that could have led to “catastrophic failure” of the hull and did cause the floating LNG facility to shut down production for the second time in less than two years. The incident has led some to question if sustained power outages — such as those caused by a hurricane — could lead to catastrophic failure of NFE’s proposed floating LNG facility too.

Not only do environmental advocates believe the comment process was biased during the public meeting, some also believe that the public has not been given adequate notice to comment meaningfully. A notice of intent regarding the FLNG project was published on April 26, and the project’s website states that public comment closes a month later, on May 26.

Kelsey Crane, a policy advocate with Earthworks, told the permitting agencies that Earthworks was submitting a letter signed by 21 organizations requesting the comment period be extended an additional 30 days. The 30 days initially allotted to submit comments is not an adequate amount of time for the general public to review some 5,000 pages of technical documents submitted related to this project, the letter states. It also calls on the permitting agencies to “meaningfully consult and engage with Indigenous nations in Louisiana.” It also points out that “sufficient language translation has not been provided. The proposed project is off the coast of Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, where around 2.5% of the residents speak a non-English language at home as their primary language.” 

 During the May 11 meeting, a few project opponents pointed out that many people who would likely want to comment are still recovering from Hurricane Ida, and as a result, were less likely to know about this meeting. Listening to them prompted me to reach out to Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe while the meeting was underway. She has been an active and outspoken advocate for her tribe and for transitioning off of fossil fuels, but her home was one of many destroyed by that storm, and she had not been aware of the project or the meeting.

Grand Isle, Louisiana, on September 22, 2021, weeks after Hurricane Ida damaged buildings and other infrastructure on the barrier island. Credit: Julie Dermansky 

She joined the virtual meeting while it was already underway and expressed displeasure that the tribes in south Louisiana were not notified about the opportunity to weigh in on the LNG project.

On a call afterward, she thanked me for alerting her about the meeting. “This project is practically in our backyard,” she said, adding that she is not surprised no one bothered to notify her, despite her recent service on Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Climate Task Force. “Being left out of the conversation is a continuation of the systemic injustices that Indigenous communities and Indigenous peoples have been dealing with since European contact.” She also expressed disappointment with President Biden’s pledge to expedite approval of LNG projects so as to expand LNG exports to Europe and end its reliance on Russian energy.

Parfait-Dardar stressed that expanding the capacity to export LNG will increase the demand for natural gas, which can only be met with an increased number of wells being drilled. These wells will further impact communities — disproportionately made up of Indigenous people and other communities of color — who live near fossil fuel drilling and production sites. 

“We need to stop depending on fossil fuel altogether and invest in clean energy technologies available, and improve upon them,” Parfait-Dardar said. “We should not be destroying our planet to produce energy, no matter what country that energy is supplied to.”

However, oil and gas industry executives including Chairman and CEO of NFE, Wes Edens, have welcomed the White House’s warm embrace of the LNG industry. Edens recently painted the company’s floating LNG project as helping to end Europe’s dependency on Russian gas, echoing the Biden administration’s framing about boosting LNG supplies to Europe.

“With rapid deployment, this project can play a significant role in supporting our nation’s commitment to our European allies and their energy security as well as support our efforts to reduce emissions and energy poverty around the world,” Edens said in a statement

New Fortress Energy touts itself as at the forefront of ushering in clean energy. The company’s site offers up classic climate science denial talking points on a “fact” page, claiming that replacing other fossil fuel use with natural gas will help move the world toward net-zero emissions, and that natural gas is a “simply clean” energy source despite climate scientists showing otherwise. While natural gas burns cleaner than coal, the advantage of using it can be negated by the methane emitted in its production and transport. Methane, the main component of natural gas, heats the planet at a much greater rate than carbon dioxide in the short term.

The company claims its proposed floating LNG facility could be online in 2023, calling it the “first fast LNG facility” in part because it’s designed to hook into an existing pipeline network that will transport natural gas from areas in the United States that produce the fossil fuel to this proposed floating export terminal. 

A 30-day extension of the comment period, if granted by MARAD, would mark the beginning of potential delays for this project. Again citing the need for Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, Edens, New Fortress Energy’s CEO, has said, “it is vitally important to fast track LNG production in the United States.”

I asked MARAD if the comment period would be extended past May 26, when it is currently set to close, and if not, why not? Despite giving the agency over a week to respond, I have yet to receive an answer. Information on how to submit a comment is available on MARAD’s site.

Environmental advocates hope that raising public awareness of NFE’s latest project could result in a similar pushback and permit withdrawal like what happened to another LNG facility the company proposed to build in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. NFE withdrew that proposal shortly before announcing its plans for a floating LNG facility in Louisiana, after facing intense pushback from climate advocates.

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.

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