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Coastal Desk

How Louisiana Industrial Facilities Pose Challenges For New Climate Task Force

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Austin R. Ramsey/IRW
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The bank of the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge is dotted with petrochemical plants, oil refineries and paper mills.

As scientists deliver increasingly dire warnings about impending climate calamity, Gov. John Bel Edwards has appointed a Climate Task Force charged with creating an ambitious blueprint to cancel out emissions by 2050 in an effort to slow the disaster.

But Louisiana faces unique challenges in reducing its emissions: more than half of the carbon emitted in the state is from industry: chemical plants and oil refineries. While other states can aim to reduce emissions through electrifying grids or incentivizing electric cars, Louisiana will have to work closely with business interests to come up with solutions.

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A snapshot of industry emissions from 2019 data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the latest data available.

That’s according to the most recent emissions inventory, compiled by LSU professor David Dismukes. That report found that the top 20 industrial facilities in Louisiana account for more than half of the state’s total emissions. Some of the biggest emitters are Exxon Mobil, Sabine Pass LNG, a Donaldsonville fertilizer plant and CITGO.

Alex Kolker, a coastal science professor at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) who serves on the task force’s science advisory group, said discussions within the task force have included “everything from reducing the carbon footprint of facilities to burying carbon dioxide underground, to improving our energy efficiency, to increasing solar and wind.”

Producing less oil and gas would be another way to reduce emissions, but it’s not an idea that appeals to industry advocates, who argue the state needs to balance the interests of business and jobs with climate goals.

Outgoing president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA), Tyler Gray, sits on the Climate Task Force and said the transition away from fossil fuels can’t happen overnight.

“Do you want to have a state that's even further down into poverty because there are fewer jobs?,” he implored.

He said society will still need gas and diesel for things like shipping or making plastic medical equipment.

Instead, he’s lobbying for solutions like carbon storage and sequestration — pumping emissions deep underground. The task force will hold a meeting about this idea in a few weeks.

Gray said he’s also pushing the idea to cut emissions at the plants themselves by retrofitting them with technologies to capture the pollution.

“You have to have a market-driven, broad-based policy. Because if you don't, then you're going to … have an economic impact that will be far reaching,” said Gray.

For some, the idea of reducing emissions isn’t enough.

During the last task force meeting, Colette Pichon Battle, director of climate advocacy group the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, said even if the state reduces carbon emissions, the environment and residents will remain under threat as long as Louisiana allows polluting industries like oil and gas refineries to operate.

“While we're looking at decreased numbers around emissions, we’re not actually looking at the total impact of the industry on our people and their health — the true costs here,” Battle told the task force.

Pichon Battle added that pollution doesn’t just get emitted in one region and stay there.

For example, the CF Industries nitrogen fertilizer plant in Donaldsonville, the state’s single biggest emitter, ends up impacting the state twice.

The fertilizer is shipped up north to be used on corn and soybean fields in the Midwest, where it then runs off of those fields into streams and rivers that carry it to the Mississippi River. It is then carried down to the Gulf of Mexico and causes huge algae blooms that create the hypoxic zone known as the Dead Zone.

It’s something farmers in the Midwest are concerned about and working to address, but the dead zone continues to grow bigger each year.

In a statement, a CF Industries spokesperson said the company has a plan to cut emissions, zeroing them out by 2050 largely by using ammonia production rather than using fossil fuels.

But Pichon Battle says the noble goal of canceling emissions is not enough. Planting forests to offset emissions, or pumping carbon underground, doesn’t alleviate the air and water pollution created by chemical, oil and gas plants in the communities that surround them, such as along the Mississippi River.

“We have a broader duty to the communities of south Louisiana to make sure that what we’re investing in the future is safe and healthy for our people,” said Pichon Battle.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

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