Thu Mar 07 2024 | 12 min read

Why these environmentalists are resisting part of Biden’s climate push



Timothy Puko

DONALDSONVILLE, La. — Petrochemical plants and refineries dominate the landscape in this part of Louisiana, each year spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air. If Washington and the oil industry have their way, some of those climate-warming gases could soon be captured and stored underground.

But the Biden administration faces big resistance from a key ally: environmentalists.

Many, led by environmental justice advocates, object to carbon capture projects, especially in a region where petrochemical plants often sit next to Black churches and schools, and high cancer rates have led to the nickname “Cancer Alley.” Some fear carbon capture will perpetuate fossil fuel industries they want to phase out. Others fear the direct local impacts of pipelines and other planned infrastructure.

The administration, backed by numerous climate scientists and lawmakers, sees carbon capture as a key tool to reduce emissions from businesses that have few other options. But that position pits major Biden administration priorities against one another. Many environmental justice advocates view it as a test case for President Biden’s commitment to their cause.

“What they’re trying to do to Louisiana now is I think the worst of anything we’ve been exposed to, because of all the uncertainty,” said Beverly Wright, the executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in east New Orleans and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“In the real world, this is an experiment,” Wright added. “And this experiment is going to be conducted on the same communities that have suffered from the oil and gas industry.”

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Activist Travis London, seen in his home, opposes a carbon-capture project proposed near his hometown of Donaldsonville, La. “We’re trying to stop it in the permitting stage,” he said. (Emily Kask for The Washington Post)

Partly because of a financial push by Congress, the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency are backing a state plan to speed up storage projects, which aim to stuff heat-trapping gases underground instead of releasing them into the atmosphere. Louisiana has become the biggest hot spot — with $80 billion in pending projects — and the EPA is proposing to hand over regulation to state officials who say they can do the job faster.

To hear from Bayou State residents on carbon capture, the EPA held meetings last week from Wednesday through Friday in Baton Rouge, extending the hearings by a day to meet the demand.

Donaldsonville, some 65 miles west of New Orleans, is a majority-Black town of nearly 7,000, the seat of Ascension Parish in the center of the state’s Mississippi River industrial corridor. The world’s largest ammonia and nitrogen plant — also the state’s largest industrial greenhouse-gas emitter — sprawls across the pancake-flat flood plain just two miles downriver. Major pipelines carry gas and hazardous liquids just south of town, and are slated to soon carry captured carbon dioxide out of the area. Two companies have plans to keep the carbon here, at more than 4,000 feet underground surrounding the town.

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CF Industries describes its Donaldsonville Complex as the world's largest ammonia plant, covering 1,400 acres along the west bank of the Mississippi River. (Emily Kask for The Washington Post)

The poverty rate in Donaldsonville approaches 50 percent, according to U.S. census data, and local officials often mention a recent survey ranking it as the country’s second-worst city to live in.

Like some in the area, Chad Ross, 37, said he had not previously heard of carbon-capture projects, or proposals for it nearby, but that he would be against it because of the local legacy of pollution.

“It is called Cancer Alley, and that’s part of the reason we don’t trust them,” Ross said. “It’s still not so good to have all these plants, so many of them, all around us. Anything could happen.”

Mistrust is also why Ashley Gaignard, 46, a part-time secretary for the city’s council, questions government assurances. She doesn’t buy into claims that carbon capture will safely cut their greenhouse-gas emissions, and she is frustrated that the administration has backed an industry-friendly solution she said amounts to an experiment on her community.

“Don’t do it in my neighborhood. Do it where you live,” said Gaignard, who voted for Biden in 2020 and is the founder of a group working to preserve rural land. “Right about now it’s politics over people. And I don’t think they give a damn about people.”

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Ashley Gaignard, founder of Rural Roots Louisiana, is seen at her home in Donaldsonville, La. (Emily Kask for The Washington Post)

Many government-backed climate solutions are facing resistance nationwide. That includes wind and solar farms, electric transmission, and the mining projects to support production of batteries and other clean energy technology.

Carbon capture is another of those fights, often muddled by conflicting conclusions from experts. Several times, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said developing new technology to capture or remove carbon is essential for limiting rising world temperatures in line with the 2015 Paris climate accord. But just last month, a different U.N. climate supervisory panel issued guidance saying that some of these technologies are unproven and “pose unknown environmental and social risks.”

In Louisiana, one of the most controversial proposals comes from the industrial gas supply company Air Products. It wants to build a carbon-capture network through several parishes as part of a $4.5 billion project to produce hydrogen at a new plant in Ascension Parish. If it works, the system would significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the plant’s hydrogen, producing a low-emissions fuel that several industries and countries say they need to cut their contribution to climate change.

“You’re not going to reach these clean-energy goals without transitioning to a clean-energy source,” said Danna LeBlanc, the commercial executive director overseeing the project at Air Products. “We’re building a hydrogen plant because it is the future of the energy transition.”

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A mix of companies have proposed other projects. The oil giant ExxonMobil is part of a $200 million project to add a carbon-capture system to Donaldsonville’s huge ammonia plant, owned by CF Industries. An arm of the private equity giant Blackstone says it has acquired rights to 30,000 surface acres for underground storage around the town.

The surge of investment is in part a response to new government incentives. The bipartisan infrastructure spending package of 2021 included nearly $18 billion combined for carbon capture and hydrogen.

And last year’s climate-spending package passed by Democrats, dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act, expanded tax credits for every ton of carbon a company captures, now as much as $85 a ton, up from $50.

While federal money is now flowing, the EPA has been slow to process permits that companies are seeking to inject the carbon into underground containment. It has approved just two, with a backlog of 75 still in review.

State officials and lobbyists say Louisiana — once it gets federal approval — can hire staff dedicated to local projects to help speed up permitting. Two years ago, the state formally sought permission to oversee regulation. The EPA is now proposing to grant it, after months of review of the state’s program and a request for more attention to racial justice in permitting.

“Public input and debate is not an obstacle — it is a feature and it is what leads to good policy,” EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said in an email. The agency’s regional leaders have “worked extensively with the state of Louisiana to ensure its primacy application reflected essential environmental justice and equity considerations.”

But many local critics say Louisiana doesn’t deserve such power because of its history of weak oversight. Legislative audits in the last decade have found the state behind on forcing oil and gas companies to plug disused wells and on inspecting out-of-compliance wells — although the most recent audit noted great improvements since 2014.

State officials say that they are hiring seven full-time engineers and geologists and that they will be able to mandate extensive studies and controls to ensure safe operations. Louisiana’s new rule package would require continuous monitoring from companies to prevent leaks. State officials say they are adopting all EPA rules, plus more extensive requirements — including that companies review every existing wellbore in their carbon storage area and model the resulting pressure as carbon fills the void.

“This is a rigorous process that we take a lot of time and effort to make sure that it is being done the right way,” said Jason Lanclos, director of the State Energy Office in Louisiana’s Natural Resources Department.

Democrats hold the governor’s office in Louisiana, and Gov. John Bel Edwards published a climate action plan that recommended deploying carbon capture. His task force framed climate action as a way for the state to stay competitive in energy, manufacturing and maritime shipping, similar to President Biden’s merging of climate and economic policy.

In Donaldsonville, the mayor and parish leaders see the wave of proposals as a potentially once-in-a-generation chance to revitalize the town. They are touting pledges for millions of dollars in donations from developers — if their projects move forward — to fund childhood development and workforce training.

Mayor Leroy Sullivan, who is Black, said environmental and racial justice advocates would also complain if the state blocked carbon capture and Texas was successful in luring industry and its jobs there. Sullivan himself was heavily burned in an explosion at the CF Industries plant where he was working 23 years ago. But he said the community doesn’t have a choice but to trust local oil and chemical companies if they are to make progress.

“We have to move on from that and figure out how we can solve problems in the future,” Sullivan said. “It’s not fair to them as well. A lot of good things have come from the industry as well.”

That puts him at odds with national leaders of the environmental justice movement. Earlier this month, leaders from a dozen different groups nationwide joined the Deep South Center in a statement decrying carbon-capture development.

The group, including several members of the White House advisory committee, said government help for carbon capture and storage, also known by the initials CCS, undermines the transition away from fossil fuels. And “no regulatory regime at any level of government” can protect environmental justice communities from dangers associated with CCS, the statement said.

“I think what bothers me the most is that the oil industry is behind pushing CCS,” Wright said in an interview. “They can continue doing what they do to make money without doing anything to actually reduce their carbon footprint.”

Industry officials dispute that, and say the technology will work.

“CCS is a proven technology explicitly endorsed by the Biden Administration, the European Union and the United Nations, all frequent critics of oil and gas,” an ExxonMobil spokeswoman said in an email.

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Monique Harden of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice discusses carbon capture during the Darrow Community Meeting at the Hillaryville Pavilion in Darrow, La., last week. (Emily Kask for The Washington Post)

In Louisiana, Black activists have found an uncommon ally in more conservative, White suburban and rural communities around Lake Maurepas. Air Products has struck a deal to put its waste carbon a mile deep under the lake, but locals have resisted, fearing what it would mean for shrimping and the lake’s health if the underground storage leaks.

Livingston Parish passed a moratorium on drilling wells to connect the storage but withdrew it after Air Products won a court victory against it.

Despite the state’s support for CCS development, there hasn’t yet been enough analysis of the full risk, said Alex Kolker, a coastal geologist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium who has studied underground storage and served on the science advisory panel of the governor’s climate task force. The top threats are the many old oil and gas wells statewide that could cause the new storage sites to leak, he said. Pumping carbon into underground layers could also lead to earthquakes, and the pipelines needed to transport waste carbon have a track record of explosions and contributing to coastal land loss, he added.

“There are many cases in which (carbon capture) well may work,” he said, adding though that, “what’s being proposed is much larger than what’s been done in the past.”

Eric Larson, part of a Princeton University team that has researched emissions reduction and carbon-capture siting, said regulators will need to devote time to ensure these projects don’t result in disasters, even in the face of competing pressures.

Every scenario Larson’s team found for meeting President Biden’s climate pledge — to halve U.S. emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels — included carbon capture. Alternatives to fossil fuels often aren’t as effective for heavy industry operations, and its opponents don’t “have enough leverage” to force them to move, he said.

“I would rather have some other solution than CO2 storage, but I don’t see that we have a lot of choice. It’s like anything, there are going to be trade-offs,” Larson said.

That has frustrated environmental justice advocates. They fear a repeat of the surge of multibillion-dollar petrochemical and gas-export plants in Louisiana fed by the country’s shale gas boom — often too quickly for activists to recruit community members to fight and stop it.

“We’re trying to stop it in the permitting stage,” said Travis London, 41, of Donaldsonville, who works for Gulf South for a Green New Deal, a coalition of regional groups. “As long as they have their permits, they’re going to do whatever they want to do.”

Last week, London and another grass-roots organizer for Earthworks advertised a community meeting in a Black neighborhood directly across the river from Donaldsonville, in a town called Darrow.

They advertised a free dinner, face painting and artwork for children. Five people attended, according to an organizer and two others working at the event. A second organizer said roughly a dozen adults ultimately showed up, with some arriving late.

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