Should Louisiana have the power to regulate carbon capture? Opinions voiced in EPA hearing
Residents from across the state flocked to Baton Rouge this week to weigh in on Louisiana’s attempt to gain authority for regulating a new class of injection wells that are used to bury carbon beneath the ground.
Over the course of a three-day hearing, members of the public made a series of short comments, grappling with whether the responsibility for regulating and inspecting Class VI wells — so-called carbon-capture wells — should remain in federal hands with the Environmental Protection Agency or be granted to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Held by the EPA, the hearings will inform whether the state agency is equipped to provide the level of oversight needed to properly permit carbon-capture wells while also protecting the health of local communities, particularly groups who have historically been overburdened by environmental hazards.
Sides quickly emerged. Those who backed the state’s application for primary responsibility — or primacy — over carbon-capture wells cited their confidence in the agency to expand its regulation of Louisiana’s industrial sector. The refining and manufacturing industry is entrenched in the state’s culture and political structure. Many of the supporters worked for oil, gas and chemical companies themselves.
Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President Tommy Faucheux pointed to the state’s long history of regulating wells, claiming those years of experience will give Louisiana regulators a leg up on the EPA when assessing permits for the up-and-coming business of capturing carbon and storing it underground.
“Louisiana knows its geology best and should be empowered to make decisions for its energy future,” Faucheux said. “We have a highly trained, highly skilled workforce that knows how to do this work, and we know how to do it safely for our environment and for our communities.”
But to opponents, the same history is littered with black marks that leave them skeptical of the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to handle the responsibility of deciding where carbon should be stored. Critics from environmental organizations questioned whether the agency had the capacity to thoroughly review the expected influx of permits for new Class VI wells and follow up with regular inspections and monitoring as wells are approved.
Healthy Gulf scientist Scott Eustis noted that the state agency has not been able to keep up with regulating other types of wells with its current staffing, including 4,600 abandoned wells now littering the state. Though the agency plans to add seven new employees to process Class VI well permits, Eustis worries it won’t be enough.
“There will be improvement, but it’s not keeping up with the abandonment rates,” Eustis said. “They’re still just physically not going to be able to keep up with all the orphaned wells.”
The pathway to primacy
Louisiana applied for primacy over carbon-capture wells after two years of discussions with the EPA’s regional office that began in 2019, according to Patrick Courreges, the Department of Natural Resources’ communications director. The application made Louisiana one of the first states to file for primacy in years.
The bid subsequently stalled for another two years as Department of Natural Resources staff worked with the EPA on the state agency’s commitment to engaging surrounding communities and assessing environmental justice concerns when evaluating where wells should be allowed.
Courreges said the state has since signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal agency that outlines the processes the state should follow to include low-income residents and communities of color that could be affected by projects in the decision-making process. He noted, though, that both agencies are still working through the details.
“We'll be collaborating with EPA Region 6 on that because for the federal government, state governments, this is kind of new stuff. These are new ways of approaching how you consider site selection and things like that,” Courreges said.
In addition to public and political support, the question of whether Louisiana will receive primacy over Class VI wells hinges on whether the Department of Natural Resources can enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act with the stringency required by federal law.
Louisiana’s push to gain approval comes as the state is on the cusp of a carbon-capture-and-storage bonanza that is being fueled by new tax credits created by the Biden administration. Fossil fuel companies like Shell, Venture Global and ExxonMobil have proposed major projects in the state. Some would use carbon capture to reduce the footprint of fuel sources like hydrogen, while others would attempt to clean up the operation of existing plants.
Many of the projects would install technology that would capture most of the carbon produced at industrial facilities before it enters the atmosphere. From there, the carbon would be cooled to near-liquid form, transferred by pipeline to the storage site and pumped at least a mile beneath the earth’s surface into pore space. The process is essentially the reverse of pulling planet-warming fuels like oil or natural gas up from the ground.
The fossil fuel industry’s enthusiasm for carbon-capture projects and the state’s push for primacy are both underpinned by federal policy that aims to accelerate adoption of the technology. Last year, in a bid to help the country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, EPA Administrator Michael Regan asked governors to apply for primacy to get these kinds of projects off the ground faster, highlighting federal funds allocated by the Inflation Reduction Act that can help state governments increase their regulatory capacity.
“Well designed and deployed CCS projects can deliver environmental and climate benefits, create good-paying jobs, and address cumulative pollution impacts in historically disadvantaged and overburdened communities,” Regan wrote.
A question of identity
As the comment period progressed, a theme began to emerge. Though the hearing was about who will be responsible for regulating carbon-sequestration wells, the arguments often touched on a much deeper subject: what the future of Louisiana should look like.
For some speakers with family ties to the oilfields that go back generations, the state’s management of carbon capture presented a way to get the state’s waning fossil fuel industry back on track.
Lucy Mesuch and her husband drove over two hours from their home in Sulphur to back Louisiana’s bid for primacy. The former elementary school teacher said Calcasieu Parish relies on the oil and gas industry. She felt the best way to keep it going was to let the state take the reins.
“Our area is so very very dependent on the oil and gas industry here. For people to go to stores and buy houses,” she said, stating that she felt the industry has been treated unfairly.
Mesuch worried that if the EPA kept control, it would hurt the state’s fossil fuel industry and prevent carbon-capture projects from being implemented. She likened the EPA’s relationship to Louisiana to her own relationship with her children.
“I’m like the federal government: I take care of my kids. But there comes a time when I want to see what they can do on their own,” she said.
Many echoed those same fears that federal control of regulation would stymie an industry that Louisiana has relied on for more than a century — one that has become embedded in some residents’ identity.
Lauren Godshall, a professor with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, called this a “false paradigm” during the hearings.
“This decision today is not about whether CCS will come to Louisiana, it is about who will manage the CCS permitting program. EPA or DNR? And DNR is already spread too thin,” Godshall said.
The public comment period will remain open through July 3, and at least one environmental group has requested a 60-day extension as it continues to assess the Department of Natural Resources’ current well-monitoring capacity.
Once the public comment period closes, the EPA will work through the input before making a final decision on the state agency’s application.