A liquefied natural gas vessel. (U.S. Department of Energy photo)

Louisiana environmental groups criticized the nation’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas on Tuesday for asking the Biden administration to exempt the company from complying with an emissions standard meant to curb cancer-causing pollutants. 

Cheniere Energy Inc.,the Houston-based company responsible for about 50 percent of the country’s exports of liquified natural gas (LNG), shouldn’t be allowed to skirt the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions limits just because there’s an increased demand for natural gas abroad as a result of the war in Ukraine, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network said. 

Granting such an exemption would harm the very same fenceline communities President Joe Biden and his administration have pledged to protect, Louisiana Bucket Brigade Southwest coordinator James Hiatt said.

Industry executives are “hoping to exploit a global gas shortage to demand exemptions from already lax EPA limits,” Hiatt said. “Because it’s costly, Cheniere is asking for exemptions to EPA rules so they can continue to release cancer-causing pollutants into our communities – the same poor neighborhoods President Biden has vowed to protect.”

Through its law firm Bracewell, Cheniere asked the Environmental Protection Agency in March to exempt two of its plants – one in Texas and the other in Louisiana (the company’s Sabine Pass facility in Cameron Parish) – from complying with a rule under the Clean Air Act, the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Pollutants, that sets limits on the emissions of cancer-producing pollutants, Reuters reported earlier this week.  Alternatively, the company asked the administration to reverse its decision to subject the gas-fired turbines in general to greater oversight. 

More than 250 facilities with gas-fired turbines will be affected by the rule change, according to a list compiled by the EPA earlier this year. Reuters reported that Cheniere is the only LNG company that appears on this list. Liquefied natural gas is primarily composed of methane, and formaldehyde — which the EPA recognizes as a probable carcinogen — is a byproduct of heating methane. 

The EPA had exempted some types of gas-powered turbines from its National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Pollutants for nearly two decades. In February, the administration stated that, beginning in August, the rule would apply to those gas-powered turbines

But retrofitting its facilities with pollution controls in order to comply with the rule would prove costly and time-consuming for Cheniere, and might adversely affect the administration’s priority of supplying Europe with an alternative energy source, the company’s counsel told EPA Administrator Michael Regan on March 8, according to emails obtained by Reuters. 

“The design of Cheniere’s LNG terminals is complex, and the subject turbines are located on elevated pedestals with limited space for installing control equipment,” Cheniere’s law firm Bracewell said in a letter emailed to Regan. 

“Potentially imposing significant costs and operational disruption on the U.S. LNG industry at the same time the administration is focused on Europe’s strategic need to break its reliance on Russian gas is counterproductive,” it said. The company sent communications to other officials with the agency, stating that it would take several years to install pollution-control infrastructure on its 62 turbines, according to Reuters. 

The Lens was not able to independently obtain the emails in question. Cheniere and the EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

U.S. exports of LNG have reached record levels, the Energy Information Administration reports, citing increased demand in Europe along with enhanced domestic export capacities. 

During the first four months of 2022, American exports of LNG averaged 11.5 billion cubic feet per day, an increase of 18% compared to the average from 2021 – which itself was a record year for LNG exports, with an average of 9.7 billion cubic feet per day. 

Biden pledged in March to increase LNG supplies to the European Union to 50 billion cubic meters per year by 2030. In the short term, Biden pledged that the EU market would have access to at least 15 billion cubic meters by the end of 2022. 

But Cheniere shouldn’t get a free pass at the expense of the fenceline communities that would suffer the harmful effects of the company’s operations, Wilma Subra, technical advisor at the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, told The Lens. 

“It’s inappropriate to allow those two facilities to release more cancer causing agents into the air, while at the same time we’ve been interacting with EPA headquarters and region about getting cancer-causing agents being released into the air reduced,” Subra said, noting that Regan himself toured south Louisiana last year to learn more about the adverse health impacts low-income and minority communities face in the region due to environmental factors.

The question is whether the Biden administration is committed to protecting only some of Louisiana’s vulnerable communities, she said. 

“The issue becomes, are you allowing additional poisoning to happen in some parts of the vulnerable communities while you’re working to reduce their exposure in other vulnerable communities?” Subra said. 

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...