‘Sacrifice zone’: booming US LNG sector leaves its mark on the Gulf
For decades communities on the US Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Texas have lived in the shadows of gigantic petrochemical factories belching out toxins that earned their regions ignominious monikers, such as “Cancer Alley” and “Death Valley”.
Now, amid an unprecedented boom in liquefied natural gas exports to Europe, the fossil fuel industry is targeting these same communities to host a fresh wave of industrial facilities with the promise of jobs and investment.
But some locals are demanding a halt to the buildout, arguing they are becoming collateral damage in a race to safeguard European energy supplies following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine — and boost corporate profits.
“You’re talking about communities that are already overburdened with pollution,” said Roishetta Sibley Ozane, a mother of six children living in Sulphur, a suburb of Lake Charles on Louisiana’s Gulf coast.
Ozane lives close to the Citgo Lake Charles refinery — one of the US’s largest — and several petrochemical plants, whose presence is ever visible from the orange glow caused by the flaring of gases. Two of the country’s biggest LNG facilities — Sempra’s Cameron LNG and Venture Global LNG’s Calcasieu Pass — sit within a 50km radius and companies are proposing to build half a dozen more in the vicinity.
She claims the pollution is causing health problems for her 11-year old daughter Kamea, including asthma, eczema and a rare skin condition called Gianotti-Crosti syndrome which manifests itself in a bumpy rash.
“All of our kids that were born and raised here are now experiencing these issues because we live so close to these facilities,” she said.
“What they [the companies] keep telling us is that because we already have all the industry and the pipelines, that’s why . . . they’re building the LNG. They’re saying it’s cleaner than the petrochemical facilities that we already have — but we know that that’s a lie.”
A surge in US LNG exports has helped to wean Europe off Russian gas in the wake of the Ukraine war. It is also a boon to the US economy, which thanks to a two-decades-long boom in shale oil and gas production moved from a net importer of energy to a net exporter in 2019.
This year the US overtook Qatar to become the world’s largest LNG exporter. Its seven existing terminals can produce as much as 11.4bn cubic feet a day, according to the Energy Information Administration — enough to satisfy the combined gas needs of Germany and France. Five more projects will add another 9.7bn cf/d. Dozens other LNG projects have been proposed, most of them for them around the Texas-Louisiana border.
The LNG industry says the investment boom is generating hundreds of billions of dollars in investment, boosting the energy security of US allies in Europe and Asia, and creating tens of thousands of jobs in areas where many people live below the poverty line.
But communities living in the shadow of the mass infrastructure buildout say they have been forgotten by policymakers — and that their concerns over displacement, pollution and climate change have been largely ignored.
“This is a sacrifice zone,” said John Beard, a former refinery worker and community activist in nearby Port Arthur, one of the poorest cities in Texas. It is a term used by advocates for environmental justice in areas that have been scarred by decades of fossil fuel production. “All of these: Lake Charles, Port Arthur, Freeport, Corpus Christi, Brownsville.”
“Because of what happened in Ukraine [they say] that American gas is freedom gas — we’re no longer being held hostage by Russia. Well we have a saying in the states: freedom ain’t free . . . The price we pay for it is pollution.”
The LNG boom has posed a headache for US President Joe Biden, who campaigned on the most ambitious climate agenda in the country’s history and has prioritised environmental justice in his administration.
Yet the president has encouraged gas exports to support European allies. A month after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden announced a pact with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen that would entail the US boosting exports to the EU in order to displace Russian energy.
“This industry brings economic and geopolitical benefits to the US, but it isn’t always easy to reconcile with Biden’s climate goals,” said Ben Cahill, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The big question is: should the government step in to limit construction of new LNG facilities, or should it let the market decide if there is sufficient gas demand and financing for these projects to be built? So far, the latter approach has worked well, but it’s getting harder to sustain.”
Local communities argue the industry is guilty of “environmental racism”, focusing the buildout of these projects in poor, mainly black or immigrant communities, which have little power to object.
“These facilities are overwhelmingly sited in or near low-income and people of colour communities,” Ozane said. “The communities that they’re near don’t even have their basic needs . . . Yet these facilities get to operate, extract the resources from this community [and] export those resources somewhere else.”
Campaigners point to the petrochemical and LNG industry’s poor safety record — and weak state regulations on pollution. Last year a huge explosion ripped through Freeport LNG in Texas sending a massive fireball into the air and forcing one of the country’s largest facilities offline for months.
The industry insists it is doing its bit for local communities. Dustin Meyer, senior vice-president at the American Petroleum Institute, said: “We will continue to collaborate with local leaders to support the fair treatment and meaningful engagement of communities with environmental justice concerns.”
Charlie Riedl, executive director at the Center for LNG in Washington, said LNG export projects “represent a sizeable if not the largest source of local tax revenue in these communities and this will have a positive local impact for years to come”.
He said companies had “invested billions of dollars throughout local communities” both in projects and also in “job training, secondary and tertiary investments and other local needs”. Safety is the “bedrock” of the US LNG industry, Riedl added.
Activists say the continued expansion of LNG infrastructure is locking in reliance on the fossil fuels whose combustion causes global warming — which has in turn contributed to the increasingly destructive hurricanes that have battered the Gulf in recent years.
“If we ever keep building more fossil fuel infrastructure and these enormous facilities, we are locking ourselves into a future that we already know is just going to be full of more climate chaos,” said James Hiatt, founder of For a Better Bayou, a group campaigning against expansion of LNG facilities in the region and a speedier transition away from fossil fuels.
“People have lived on this land for generations, fathers and grandfathers, and they are now being forced off by climate change. And those that haven’t given up and now being forced off by these massive facilities. Who wants to live next to this? Nobody.”
Campaigners have vowed not to limit the fight to the US, taking their case to parliaments and boardrooms from Europe to Asia, scoring some successes.
In March, French banking giant Société Générale withdrew its financial support from NextDecade’s Rio Grande LNG project, proposed in Brownsville, Texas. This followed lobbying by indigenous leaders from Texas who travelled to Europe to voice opposition to the customers and funders who finance LNG developers. However, NextDecade in July made a final investment decision to proceed with construction.
In September Ireland’s planning agency refused permission for the construction of an LNG import terminal proposed by US-based New Fortress Energy, which was opposed by campaigners, including Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo.
“People are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Beard, who travelled to Brussels this month to make his case to members of the European parliament.
Yet Europe’s thirst for LNG continues to rise and EU capitals are still rushing to sign up more long-term import deals, underwriting the construction of new export plants. It will help US LNG rise from a fifth of global supply to a quarter by 2026, according to the International Energy Agency.
He and other local activists say they will step up their campaign to halt LNG developments by not just opposing their planning and licensing but also targeting the banks, private equity and insurance companies that back them.
Beard said: “Picket signs and protest lines ain’t gonna get it — we gotta start attacking the money.”