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The oil and gas industry is using Louisiana’s climate task force to push carbon capture

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

This story is the second in a series examining oil and gas industry efforts to undermine the transition away from fossil fuels in the Gulf of Mexico, published in partnership with [WWNO/Southerly]. Read the first here

Louisiana is facing dangerous effects of climate change more acutely than ever: Sunny-day flooding is making coastal roads impassable, stronger hurricanes are demolishing homes, and intense heat is killing vulnerable residents during prolonged power outages.

A 23-member task force assembled by the Democratic governor last summer is meant to chart a path to reduce Louisiana's contributions to climate change. But the oil, gas, and chemicals industries are using the group to push for policies to extend the state’s dependence on fossil fuels—particularly through carbon capture, use, and sequestration. The technology involves capturing carbon dioxide, or CO2, from industrial facilities before it enters the atmosphere and piping it deep underground to be stored or used to increase production of oil and gas wells.

The state’s unwavering support of the oil, gas, and chemical industries has made it difficult to reduce emissions, fund coastal restoration, or address extreme weather. The energy sector has immense power in the Republican-controlled legislature, which would need to approve any plan put forth by the task force. At least four industry appointees serve on the task force, including a corporate lobbyist, two trade group representatives and a power company executive. The Speaker of the House designated the lobbyist, who works for oil and gas company BHP Group.

An administrative team supporting the task force expected leaders of the House and Senate to designate other lawmakers to represent them, according to internal emails obtained by Southerly and WWNO.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has said the long-term goal is to cut Louisiana’s greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, meaning the oil and gas industry could thrive as long as it found ways to offset or capture its emissions. Many Louisiana officials insist the industry must be core to the state’s economy. But Logan Atkinson Burke, the executive director of the power consumer advocacy group, Alliance for Affordable Energy, disagrees.

“For 20 years our poverty rate has remained around 20%,” Burke said. “To lift up this particular industry and say, ‘we have to protect that at all costs,’ and not ‘we have to protect Louisianans at all costs’ has felt upside down for me.”

The industry’s contribution to state GDP has dropped from a high of nearly 40% in 1981 to about 10% in 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. “If the rest of the country is going to take Louisiana seriously about protecting ourselves we actually have to,” she said. “As the world-wide demand for these products continues to wind down, if we keep tying our cart to that horse it wont go anywhere. We won’t have anything left.”

State climate action will be critical to U.S. efforts to reduce emissions, particularly as Democrats in Congress struggle to fund carbon-cutting investments. Louisiana ranks fifth in the country for carbon dioxide emissions; 4% of U.S. emissions are from the state, according to the Louisiana State University Center for Energy Studies. Because the U.S. is the second-biggest climate change contributor in the world, Louisiana accounts for about 0.4% of global emissions—more than many developing nations.

Louisiana is the only state where the bulk of emissions come from industry, not buildings or transportation, as in many other states. ICLEI USA, a nonprofit that helps governments reach their climate goals, cited “the significance of the industrial sector” in declining to lead work in Louisiana, according to an email obtained via a public records request.

The state’s climate footprint has grown in recent years as the industry has built and expanded plants due to an overabundance of cheap natural gas. At one task force meeting this summer, a representative of the state’s transportation and development department was surprised by a preliminary estimate of 2020 emissions, which totaled 217.50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“If this is correct, we have no chance of meeting the 2025 emissions reduction targets the governor set. You realize that, right?” Eric Kalivoda asked.

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-Louisiana).
Paul Braun / WRKF
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-Louisiana).

At the task force’s inaugural meeting in 2020, Gov. Edwards emphasized Louisiana’s vulnerability to climate change.

“Everyone here needs and wants to be able to go to work to live their lives and raise their kids without having to manage a natural disaster every other week of the year,” he said. “I suspect that had we not already planned on doing this we would have after this year anyway with (hurricanes) Cristobal and Marco, Laura, Sally, Beta, Delta, Zeta and Eta.” Since then, Hurricane Ida swept through south Louisiana in late August, causing major damage and knocking out electricity for tens of thousands of residents for weeks.

Edwards backs carbon capture, use, and sequestration technology—often referred to as CCUS—pushed by the oil and gas industry to capture carbon dioxide and either use it for further oil extraction or trap it underground. In his executive order establishing the task force, Edwards reiterated his commitment to working with industry. Both the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association (LMOGA) and the Louisiana Chemical Association are pushing for tax breaks for companies that adopt carbon capture.

“We have ideal geology to serve as carbon sinks, highly concentrated industrial corridors to serve as carbon sources and a highly trained workforce that could easily adapt to the type of labor required to build and operate CCUS (carbon capture, use and sequestration) projects and infrastructure,” LMOGA’s regulatory affairs manager said in official comments to the state.

Environmental and community advocates warn that CCUS relies on unproven technology that will lead to further investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and do nothing to protect communities—often low-wealth communities of color—overburdened by air and water pollution. TheInternational Energy Agency said that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, all investment in new fossil fuel development must stop.

Flozell Daniels, Jr., a member of the task force and president of Foundation for Louisiana, said the state does not have the time or money to invest in a technology that has not been proven at scale.

“It’s an economic boondoggle that will distract us from proven technologies both natural and manmade that would ensure that we could get closer to meeting these goals,” he said. “For the money they want to spend on carbon capture, we could spend that on subsidies for renewables.”

While climate-impacted communities have seats on the task force, so do oil and gas, chemical manufacturing, and power companies, and the industry’s influence on state decisions is once again coming into play. Voting members represent the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association, Louisiana Chemical Association, and Entergy, a utility still largely reliant on fossil fuels that has come under fire for failing to prepare for storms.

The top three climate emitters in Louisiana are the CF Industries fertilizer plant in Donaldsonville, the ExxonMobile refinery in Baton Rouge and the Sabine Pass LNG terminal near the Louisiana-Texas border, according to LSU’s Center for Energy Studies. These facilities would benefit from policies to support carbon capture. In public comments, CF Industries suggested that the state should find ways to streamline permitting for CCUS projects.

At least one carbon capture company—Gulf Coast Sequestration LLC—has a representative on the climate task force’s manufacturing and industry committee, one of six committees advising the group on different industry sectors. Gulf Coast Sequestration submitted an application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to inject carbon into a deep saline reservoir in southwest Louisiana, called Project Minerva.

The state was working to develop CCUS long before the task force was established. In 2009, the Louisiana legislature passed a law paving the way for the geological sequestration of carbon. In December 2020, an ad hoc committee on CCUS met for the first time. It is made up of four staffers from the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees oil and gas development, and Keith Hall, a professor who leads the energy law center at Louisiana State University’s law school who previously represented oil and gas companies. There is no ad hoc committee to work on emissions reduction.

The carbon capture committee has met to consider possible property concerns, liability issues and funding sources with geological carbon dioxide sequestration, according to meeting agendas.

To pave the way for CCUS, Louisiana has applied to have regulatory authority over underground injection wells for carbon dioxide, which currently sits with the EPA. Only two states, Wyoming and North Dakota, have that authority. They’ve also promoted carbon capture to support fossil fuel economies.

Louisiana lawmakers passed a law this year confirming the Department of Natural Resources can collect fees to review and grant permits for carbon dioxide storage facilities and hire contractors to review applications. “The amount of interest we’ve heard regarding CCUS in Louisiana is orders of magnitude greater than pretty much anything else we’re dealing with right now,” said the department’s executive counsel J. Blake Canfield at a Louisiana House committee meeting.

State representatives gather on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives on the final day of the First Extraordinary Session, Jun. 30, 2020.
Paul Braun/WRKF
State representatives gather on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives on the final day of the First Extraordinary Session, Jun. 30, 2020.

No legislators voted against the bill, despite a provision that allows companies to conceal information they consider to be confidential business information during the permitting process. Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, a Republican from Lafayette, said that stipulation was needed so that private information couldn’t get out to competitors.

Jane Patton, a campaign manager with the Center for International Environmental Law, said the bill will let companies hide which chemicals they are using as they push carbon dioxide deep underground. “This obviously is a major concern for public safety,” she said, “as the more of a company's processes that are included under the cloud of (confidential business information), the less the public can know or prove about what a company is potentially releasing as pollution into the environment.”

A 35-page report evaluating Project Minerva’s potential impact on drinking water sources has 21 redacted pages—about 60% of the document. While the hydrology report appears to conclude that there is no threat to drinking water, the methodology justifying how Gulf Coast Sequestration reached that conclusion is redacted.

Redacted page from the hydrology report for Project Minerva.
Redacted page from the hydrology report for Project Minerva.

At a Climate Initiatives Task Force meeting in June, the Water Institute of the Gulf showed ways Louisiana could cut its emissions with an energy policy simulator. The modeling tool warned CCUS strategies should not be used to target more than 20% of carbon emissions because the technology still has not been deployed at scale and is cost prohibitive for many scenarios, said Sarah Spengeman, a spokesperson for climate policy think tank Energy Innovation, which developed the tool.

Other carbon cuts would need to be achieved elsewhere, including with policies from the Louisiana Public Service Commission. Incentives for renewable power, including rooftop solar, have not fared well with the commission in the past.

This spring, the task force solicited ideas from the public for how to reduce greenhouse gases in Louisiana. A total of 165 comments—many by task force and committee members—were submitted, including one with an idea to cover the Superdome roof with solar panels. In August, the group released a draft plan with strategies to increase renewables and transition industrial processes from burning fossil fuels to relying on electricity, which could cut industrial emissions in half.

But some task force members appear committed to focusing on CCUS. Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown has ittereated the regulatory hurdles in implementing carbon cutting policies. “We’re going to have to create enforcement mechanisms and all types of oversight,” he said at a task force meeting this summer. One of two industrial decarbonization meetings in October will focus on CCUS.

Most of the carbon capture projects that currently exist involve injecting pressurized carbon dioxide into aging oil wells to produce more oil, which produces more carbon emissions. “The primary beneficiaries are oil and gas companies because it allows business as usual. It creates this myth that you can continue to burn fossil fuels and the emissions will magically disappear,” said Carroll Muffett, the president of the Center for International Environmental Law. He added that CCUS is expensive and harder to deploy in reality than petrochemical companies suggest. Companies would use more energy to strip carbon dioxide from the mix of gases that comes out of smokestacks and would need to install pipes to transport and push it underground.

The industry has pitched using existing natural gas pipelines to move carbon dioxide, but Muffett said that is dangerous; it needs to be under intense pressure to move through a pipeline as a super-cold liquid. “The gas becomes highly corrosive,” Muffett said. “If a leak occurs, it changes from a liquid to a gas really quickly, increasing the risk of a catastrophic rupture.”

Last year, a pipeline burst in Yazoo County, Miss., sending 49 people to the hospital. Those who were exposed to the greenish gas cloud struggled to breath, foamed at the mouth and became confused, according to Huffington Post. An investigator with the local sheriff’s department described the scene as “something you’d see in a zombie movie.”

A climate strategy focused on CCUS also doesn’t address toxic air pollution. Energy production and chemical manufacturing in the state have jeopardized the health of low-income communities of color. An early draft of task force members included a seat for the health department, but the list ultimately did not include a health representative. The group of scientists advising the group also doesn’t have a health sector member.

Daniels, the task force member from the Foundation for Louisiana, who was born and raised in Uptown New Orleans, didn’t expect for it to be easy to push for a climate agenda in Louisiana. “I think we’re just going to have to fight for what we know is right,” he said. “The CCUS group has been working on this long before the task force. And so have we.”

This story is supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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