A map of the proposed terminal site included in permit application records. (Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority)

The permitting process for a massive new crude oil export terminal in Plaquemines Parish is proceeding rapidly, even as the project’s developer has failed to release crucial information about its potential impacts on the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a key component of the state’s coastal restoration plan. 

Over the holidays, Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a notice of a February public hearing to be held jointly with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) regarding the coastal and air permits of the proposed Plaquemines Liquids Terminal (PLT). 

But environmental groups say the permitting process is moving too quickly, and the public doesn’t have all the information it needs. 

“We’re being asked to come in and comment on an application that is incomplete,” said Faye Matthews, legal policy advisor with the National Wildlife Federation. “We think that it violates the spirit of democracy, and it’s robbing us of an opportunity to provide meaningful comment on a project that is likely to have severe impacts not just on coastal restoration but also on people’s quality of life.” 

Environmental groups also object to holding a single meeting for the two separate permits, which deal with separate environmental impacts overseen by separate state agencies. (DEQ is responsible for air permits, and DNR is responsible for coastal use permits.) Holding the hearing “jointly” appears to environmental advocates as a way to rush the project through, despite the terminal’s potential impacts to the diversion. In an emailed response to requests for information filed by environmental group Healthy Gulf — which the group provided to The Lens — a DEQ official stated that this hearing is the only instance in their records of a hearing held to evaluate both the coastal and air permits of a project at the same time. 

The joint hearing may be unprecedented, but Steve Cochran, associate vice president for coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Lens that a hurried approach to the public hearing process is not uncommon. 

“It’s more of a box-checking process than it is a legitimate, ‘We want to hear that, we want to analyze the comments.’ That is particularly the case if the applicant, Tallgrass, is in their ear everyday saying ‘let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,’ which they probably are,” Cochran said.

The $2.5 billion, 20-million-barrel facility would receive crude oil from a pipeline also proposed by Tallgrass Energy LP for export overseas. It would be built directly adjacent to the site of the planned Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, among the most ambitious projects included in the state’s 50-year coastal Master Plan. The $1.4 billion project would divert sediment from the Mississippi River to build and maintain wetlands to help mitigate the rapid erosion of Louisiana’s coasts. 

The proposed oil terminal — a joint project of the Plaquemines Port and Harbor Terminal District, Tallgrass (which recently accepted a takeover offer from private-equity firm Blackstone) and Drexel Hamilton, an investment firm — threatens to impact the effectiveness of the diversion. A plan for a coal terminal proposed by the site’s previous owner, RAM Terminals, could have reduced the sediment captured by the diversion by as much as 17 percent, according to a 2012 study. In 2013, DNR issued a coastal use permit to RAM Terminals despite these impacts, which was subsequently overruled by a state court. 

Apart from its potential impacts on the diversion project, environmental groups worry that the terminal could pose other risks, like oil spills, to nearby communities.

“Tallgrass’s proposal is a joint development, seeking permission to construct a 17-million-barrel capacity, crude-oil storage and transshipment terminal … that — along with a massive, new interstate crude-oil pipeline network and crude-by-rail Tallgrass also proposes — would supply a planned Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) port off the Louisiana coast,” wrote Earthjustice staff attorney Michael Brown in a Jan. 9 letter to DEQ.  “The Tallgrass Oil Terminal would be built on a greenfield site adjacent to the Plaquemines Parish community of Ironton, also within approximately two miles of the communities of Myrtle Grove and Phoenix.”

The terminal is one of several currently being proposed across the Gulf to accommodate its exploding oil export economy, but some energy analysts expect that only a few will ultimately be built, according to trade publications.

“[Tallgrass] is under enormous economic pressure to get this stuff done,” Cochran said. 

‘There’s no underlying regulatory structure’

The Tallgrass project received an initial OK from coastal officials in April of last year, who found that it “is not inconsistent” with the coastal Master Plan, as reported by NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. 

The consistency determination was conditional on a memorandum of understanding — signed by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the Plaquemines Port and PLT — that called for the Port and PLT to complete a navigation study and a sediment transport modeling study assessing any impacts of the project on the diversion. The state also determined that the terminal would be subject to a separate memorandum of agreement establishing a plan for Tallgrass to mitigate any damage the terminal causes to wetlands. 

However, as the public hearing date rapidly approaches, neither the results of the sediment study, nor the requirements of a memorandum of agreement, nor a draft coastal use permit have been made public.

In response to the announcement of the joint hearing, a coalition of groups called Restore the Mississippi Delta, along with environmental groups Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf, co-signed letters to DEQ and DNR requesting that the agencies hold the two hearings separately and delay hearings until the sediment study and draft coastal use permit are published for public review, writing that “the public cannot comment on a document that, to our knowledge, does not exist.” 

DEQ declined to comment to The Lens regarding the letters, noting that the agency does not comment on active permit applications. DNR responded that it intends to continue with the hearing as planned, and additionally noted that it is not part of its process to release draft coastal use permits in advance of a public hearing. Neither the Port nor CPRA responded to requests from The Lens regarding the status of sediment modeling study. The Port informed Healthy Gulf last week that they do not have it, according to Scott Eustis, community science director atHealthy Gulf. 

Once the public hearing has taken place, the permitting process could proceed quickly: according to DNR regulations, the agency must either accept or deny a draft permit within 15 days, barring new information raised through the hearing or comment process, which can prompt an extension at DNR’s discretion.

According to state statute and an executive order issued by Governor John Bel Edwards, coastal use permits can only be issued if the project is consistent with the state’s coastal master plan. But for some advocates concerned with the integrity of the coastal restoration plans, these requirements are too vague. 

“There’s no underlying regulatory structure that says, ‘Here’s what the process is, here’s what we do, here’s the notice and comment provisions’— any of that,” said Cochran. “That’s a weakness from our perspective in this process and in the broader issues about consistency: it makes it hard to follow and it’s not clear what the decision is until it’s — in this case, I would expect — already made.”

The air permit, while more transparent, poses problems, too. PLT’s draft air permit package has been publicly posted but without knowing the findings of the sediment modeling study or any changes to the terminal’s design, operations, or location that may arise out of the memorandum of agreement, environmental advocates say they’re unable to evaluate it fully. The organizations are further concerned that the permit package fails to adequately acknowledge the full scope of Tallgrass’ intended development. While the company has elsewhere stated its intention to develop a crude oil pipeline, rail, and off-shore pipeline extension to complement the terminal, the permit package fails to acknowledge the potential impacts of these components.

Commenters will have five weeks between when the nearly 1,100-page draft air permit package was posted online and the hearing date in which to review the filings and prepare comments. 

A permit process is also underway with the Army Corps of Engineers, but no public hearing has been announced. The environmental groups sent a letter on January 9 to the Army Corps, following up on a request over the summer for a public hearing for the project, which received no response. This time, the environmental advocates received an email denying their request for a public hearing at this time, noting that the Corps has “not completed our full review of the project.” 

The Army Corps rarely breaks from DNR’s permitting decisions, said Emily Vuxton, policy director at the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.  

“There’s probably only a few examples in history of the permits disagreeing,” Vuxton said. “I would expect them to say yes if the state says yes.”