John Hoover’s ties to Lake Maurepas run deep. A crabber by trade, Hoover has been drawn to the lake ever since his toes submerged its brackish water when he was two years old. 

In his mid-50s now, Hoover can be found most mornings before the crack of dawn prepping his custom-designed boat, itself old enough to join the army and purchase liquor, to cast at least 350 traps a day. Since he became a full-time, self-employed fisherman at 18, he’s battled the elements and the tides as he’s pulled crab from Maurepas and its larger sibling, Lake Pontchartrain. 

His handiwork has made possible countless meals in his native Louisiana and throughout the country – even in places like Maryland, whose fabled crabbing industry has suffered its own setbacks, due in part to pollution. 

Hoover is, in short, living his dreams. After disembarking from his dock near Port Manchac, he can point to the property his father once owned, and to the lakefront house he and his wife built for their retirement – the one they plan to pass down to their daughter some day. 

But there’s a lingering concern that has Hoover animated these days – the same concern that propelled dozens of area residents to descend upon an overflowing special meeting held by the Livingston Parish Council on Tuesday evening and to a council meeting in Tangipahoa Parish the day prior. Passions ran high in Livingston Parish, with residents, and some elected officials, repeatedly expressing their opposition to the project. 

Area residents concerned about the carbon sequestration project packed the Oct. 3, 2022 Livingston Parish Council meeting. (Joshua Rosenberg/The Lens)

Those residents, like Hoover, fear a proposed project that would attempt to sequester carbon more than a mile below Lake Maurepas could permanently destroy the lake’s delicate ecosystem – and with it, the livelihoods of fishermen and crabbers, the area’s recreation, and in some ways, the social fabric itself. 

Business leaders and politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards have pushed for the adoption of carbon capture and sequestration projects, like Air Products’ proposal, in Louisiana as a way to combat climate change by mitigating carbon emissions – all part of the state’s goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

The technology, though, is controversial, with environmental groups arguing that the technology and infrastructure pose a safety risk to the communities they encounter, that it prolongs the life span of industrial facilities that contribute significantly to climate change, and that the capture rates are inadequate and not worth the investment. 

Hoover is worried about what the project might do to the lake he loves. 

“This is paradise,” Hoover said while on his boat Wednesday morning. “Who would want to mess with that?”

Of the many concerns Hoover has regarding the project, the most visually prominent would likely be the various wellheads –which would ostensibly be used to monitor and regulate pressure in the wells – and their attendant navigational lights set to be constructed. Each would protrude between six-and-ten feet above the surface of Lake Maurepas. 

Arthur George, spokesman for Air Products, told The Lens that the company plans to construct between 10 and 14 of those platforms. Their sizes, though, would be negligible, George said. The smaller of those platforms would be “equivalent to a single dice on a football field,” while the larger ones would be like a single index card on a football field. 

But Hoover, for one, isn’t impressed with those descriptions. 

“Those are going to get someone killed,” he told The Lens, noting that recreational boaters and fishermen alike sometimes travel across the lake before dawn or after dusk, when visibility is low.

“The idea that you take this lake that’s like a pristine, untouched environment, and you decide you’re going to come in here, and build all these wellheads, these obstructions sitting in that lake,” is just asking for trouble, he said. 

The plan

Lake Maurepas is connected to the Gulf of Mexico’s saltwater by way of its larger, easterly-adjacent sibling, Lake Pontchartrain (itself connected to the gulf by Lake Borgne), and to several freshwater rivers, which combine to produce the water’s brackish quality. 

The lake boasts a vibrant, diverse ecosystem, which includes crabs, catfish, bass, rangia clams, shrimp, manatees, eagles, ospreys, and more. The crabs travel between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain, burrowing down in the former’s lakebed during the cold winter months for hibernation — later to emerge in the spring as larger, fatter versions of themselves, ripe for the local and national market.

Enter Air Products, a Pennsylvania-based industrial gas company that plans to construct a $4.5 billion so-called “blue hydrogen” plant near the community of Burnside, located in Ascension Parish. Blue hydrogen refers to a process by which natural gas, which is made up largely of methane, is split into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. 

The carbon dioxide that results from that process can then be stored or sequestered deep underground, while the hydrogen can be used as an energy source – one that burns without emitting greenhouse gasses. 

The carbon dioxide in this case would be transported to Lake Maurepas via pipeline, where it would then be sequestered some 7,000 feet below the lakebed, according to the company. The plan would be to permanently store more than 5 million  tons of the captured carbon annually in the geological formations present there. 

With the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress recently increased the value of the carbon capture tax credit to $85 per ton, which means Air Products would be set to benefit from upwards of $425 million in tax credits annually. 

The tax incentive is essentially tantamount to “the tail wagging the dog,” Scott Eustis, community science director with the environmental nonprofit Healthy Gulf, told The Lens. An alternative that should be prioritized in our country would be to use renewable energy sources to power electrolysis in order to produce hydrogen, Eustis said – a process dubbed “green hydrogen.” 

Along with being cleaner, that process wouldn’t be pegged to the vicissitudes of the natural gas market, which has seen prices skyrocket recently in response to increased demand abroad, driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

George told The Lens the volatility in the natural gas market has not given Air Products pause in their pursuit of their project. 

Before any such carbon storage can be initiated, Air Products must first conduct a seismic survey of those geological formations. The company plans to begin that survey in early October and conclude it sometime in the spring of 2023 — but is still awaiting permitting approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, having already secured approval from the Louisiana Office of Coastal Management, George told The Lens last week. 

Exoduas, the company that will be conducting the seismic survey on behalf of Air Products, will be using dynamite as part of the process of setting off 17,000 charges in the lakebed, Wayne Rowe, director of sub surface technology for Air Products said on Tuesday. 

“I don’t want to use a code word,” Rowe said, adding that the process is safe, and has been conducted before using dynamite in the 1980’s when the sensors were less sensitive, and therefore required more powerful charges. 

Hoover worries the survey could end up affecting his livelihood in at least two ways, he told The Lens. For one, the charges themselves may disrupt the crabs’ migration or hibernation patterns, he said. And the timeline has him worried as well, given that springtime represents one of his prime harvesting seasons, and the project has yet to secure its permits.

George, spokesman for Air Products, told The Lens the company has no plans to diverge from its planned start date of early October. 

Duties, promises

“Google ‘National Petroleum Council CCS report,’” Rowe told the people gathered Tuesday evening in Livingston Parish, referring to a report authored by an advisory council to the U.S. Department of Energy. “It’s thousands of pages long – I wrote one section of one chapter. But there’s an executive summary that explains the reason why we all need to do this as American citizens.” 

The report says that the task of implementing carbon capture, use, and storage technology at-scale requires, in part, the close coordination of governments and industry actors and robust financial incentives.

His appeal was met with more than a murmur of sustained, doubtful laughter. The scientific research would seem to support the residents’ skepticism. 

Air Products has made several promises and representations regarding the project’s potential impacts on public health and the environment. For example, the company has promised it will, by virtue of its proprietary technology, be able to capture 95% of carbon dioxide emissions; that it will be able to permanently store its captured carbon deep underground; and that it has never experienced a methane leak. 

Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University who helped publish a recent study on blue hydrogen, questioned those claims in an interview with The Lens. 

For instance, whatever small reduction in carbon dioxide emissions blue hydrogen plants have achieved has been more than made up for, in terms of greenhouse gas effect, by fugitive methane emissions, which are, in part, driven by the need to power the carbon capture process itself, according to the report.

Natural gas is largely composed, to the tune of 70 to 90 percent, of methane, a gas that’s contributing significantly to climate change. Methane is much more potent at warming the atmosphere in the short-term than is carbon dioxide. 

George, spokesman for Air Products, told The Lens that the company “has never had a methane leak incident.”

But that claim amounts to little more than “wordsmithing,” Jacobson told The Lens. Methane emissions are an integral part of the production process, he said. 

“I mean, the methane leaks continuously, it’s not an ‘incident’,” Jacobson said. “If they’re claiming there’s no methane released, that’s just not true,” he said, adding that accounting for a 3.5% methane leakage rate would be conservative for this kind of project.  

Furthermore, permanently sequestering carbon dioxide at a commercial scale is, as yet, unproven to work in the real world, and the carbon capture rates that companies have promoted, have, upon closer inspection, proven to be underwhelming, Jacobson told The Lens. 

The only blue hydrogen facility that produces hydrogen from natural gas at a commercial scale for which there’s relevant data, Shell’s Alberta plant, has demonstrated a mean capture rate of 78%, Jacobson said. A separate analysis conducted by the watchdog group Global Witness pegged that figure at 48%. 

Tom Harris, Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, told the residents gathered Tuesday evening in Livingston Parish that, whether people support or oppose the projects subject to discussion (the other one being Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, LLC’s carbon capture project proposed in the parish), there are at least two key facts residents should keep in mind: the technology underlying the projects is “not new.” He added that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be overseeing the permit application process. 

“We’ve been drilling wells for 100 years here in Louisiana,” Harris said. “We’ve been doing injection [wells] for over 40 [years], and we’re good at it. We can do it well, we can do it properly.”

But those claims appear to have omitted potentially important information. 

For instance, Harris didn’t mention that of the more than 700,000 permits the EPA has approved as part of its underground injection program, only two have been for active Class VI wells, which are the type of wells in which Air Products would attempt to store carbon under Lake Maurepas. 

Harris also spoke at length about the EPA’s role in issuing permits, soliciting public comments, and conducting oversight of the wells. 

“That’s the agency that’s going to review the application and determine if the underground layers, the underground geology look suitable,” Harris said. “Basically, you’re talking about a one-to-two year process after that application’s submitted,” he said. 

But Harris did not mention that the state of Louisiana has applied to the EPA for primacy,  or the right to issue permits in lieu of the federal government, for Class VI wells. If approved, Louisiana would join the ranks of Wyoming and North Dakota, the only two states in the country who’ve received primacy status for Class VI wells. 

Class II wells are exclusively used to inject fluids, usually brines, that are associated with the production of oil and natural gas, when those fluids are surfaced. Class VI wells, by contrast, are used to inject carbon dioxide into geological formations. 

That application is apparently in the “completeness determination” phase of review, and would essentially remove the EPA from the process of issuing permits. Still, the EPA would have an oversight role, Pat Courreges, spokesman for DNR, told The Lens. 

Harris didn’t mention the state’s application for primacy, in part, because he didn’t want to confuse the residents on a topic that’s already complicated, Courreges said.

Where things stand

The Livingston Parish Council voted last month to impose a year-long moratorium on the construction of disposal and injection wells in the parish. But Marjorie McKeithen, an attorney with Jones Walker who spoke on behalf of Air Products in Livingston Parish on Tuesday, indicated that the council’s jurisdiction wouldn’t extend to this project. 

Still, something needs to be done to slow down or halt the project, lest the lake, and the community’s way of life, be ruined in the process, Kinion Bankston, the owner of Southern Boyz Store and a popular content creator on social media, said on Tuesday. 

Air Products “can talk about the oil wells, the rigs going out there and how safe they are and everything else,” Bankston said. “But the damage will be done before that stops. The damage will be done. The dredging will be done, the wells will be drilled, and the lake will be destroyed.”

State lawmakers, including Reps. Clay Schexnayder, Republican of Gonzales and the state’s Speaker of the House, William Wheat Jr., Republican of Ponchatoula, and Buddy Mincey, Jr., Republican of Denham Springs, were present at the council meeting on Tuesday to discuss the legislation underlying the present circumstances, Senate Bill 353. That bill amended parts of the Louisiana Geologic Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide Act, which the legislature approved in 2009. 

Rep. Sherman Mack, Republican of Albany, asked Air Products’ representatives why the company couldn’t pipe the carbon down to the Gulf of Mexico instead of trying to store it under Lake Maurepas. The cost would be prohibitive, Rowe answered.

Once again, that answer left Hoover unimpressed. 

“There are so many aspects of this that come together that create so many questions that we don’t know” the answers to, Hoover said. “It’s just ludicrous to believe that this is the safest and best place, as they say, to do this project.”

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...