The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation, which is considering a permit application from a company seeking to drill a well in Lake Maurepas, heard a consistent message from the area residents and elected officials gathered in Baton Rouge on Tuesday evening: the lake is a precious resource and shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of corporate profits. 

“I’m not against the oil and gas industry, and I want to reduce [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere as much as anybody else,” Don Marshall, constable for Tangipahoa Parish’s 8th Ward Justice Court, said Tuesday. “But this is not correcting the problem. This is creating one more problem.”

Marshall was one of approximately 20 people who spoke during, and one of more than 50 people who attended, the meeting on a windy evening in the heart of Baton Rouge. None other than an Air Products executive – Andrew Connolly, vice president of low-carbon hydrogen – voiced complete support for the project. 

“Air products is committed to being a safe, transparent and responsible community partner in all things: our operations, our communications and our business,” Connolly said. 

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. Crabbers like John Hoover depend on the lake for their livelihoods. 

The crabs, for instance, 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. The state imposed a moratorium on drilling in Lake Pontchartrain in 1991, largely curtailing the activity. 

Air Products is 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. 

Natural gas is composed, to the tune of 70 to 90%, 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. 

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. 

With the Inflation Reduction Act, Congress recently increased the value of the carbon capture tax credit to $85 per ton – which is almost double the previous figure of $50 per ton – which means Air Products would be set to benefit from upwards of $425 million in tax credits annually. 

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. 

But before any such carbon storage can be initiated, Air Products must first complete a seismic survey of those geological formations. Air Products originally planned to begin the survey this October and complete it by the spring of 2023, but is behind schedule – having initiated it with a demonstration earlier this month. Exoduas, the company that is conducting the seismic survey on behalf of Air Products, is using dynamite to set off 17,000 charges in the lakebed. 

Air Products faced scrutiny from local residents earlier this month, and again on Tuesday evening, because of the presence of an armed security guard accompanying the demonstration. One of those speaking out against the practice was Louisiana native Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, now retired, who famously ordered his troops – and even New Orleans police officers – to lower their weapons in the days following Hurricane Katrina. 

“They’re taking those guns and pointing them at people who are worried about protecting the water and the ecosystem in their parish,” Honoré said. “That’s a crying damn shame to have that happen.”

Arthur George, a spokesperson for Air Products, told The Lens that Exoduas hired a deputy sheriff from a local parish to serve as a security guard during the demonstration. The officer was off duty at the time, George said. He did not specify in which parish the officer is employed, nor the type of weapon he carried – but did say that Exoduas will continue to employ the services of security personnel. 

“There will be security present throughout the seismic survey due to the presence of the charges being handled during this work, to ensure the 1,000-foot distance from the charge LDWF/Louisiana Administrative Code requirement is followed, and for the safety of the workers doing the survey and boaters on the lake,” he told The Lens via email on Wednesday, referring to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

While those gathered in Baton Rouge on Tuesday raised all types of concerns relating to the overall project, the meeting itself was specifically about a Class V well permit planned within the boundaries of St. John the Baptist Parish, which would serve as a test well. Class V wells are those in which non-hazardous fluids are injected. 

The Office of Conservation will review the application, along with public comments regarding it, before deciding whether to issue a permit or not, the officials said Tuesday. 

For his part, Matt Rota, senior policy director at the environmental advocacy group Healthy Gulf, posed some questions about the practicalities of the test well when he spoke on Tuesday: Which company will be drilling the Class V well? What’s their safety record? What will happen to the waste byproduct? 

George relayed to The Lens on Wednesday that Parker Wellbore would act as the drilling company and that SLB, previously named Schlumberger, would act as the general contractor for the test wells. Air Products plans to drill another Class V test well in Livingston Parish – which the company has already applied for, according to Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for LDNR. 

The drilling rig in St. John Parish is set up for “‘Zero Discharge,’” George said, “meaning that no fluid or cuttings will be discharged.” Still, there’s infrastructure in place to contain an “accidental or unexpected spill,” George said, adding that the drill cuttings generated during the procedure will be sent to Clean Harbors for disposal, while the drilling fluids will be reused, he said. 

But before the project progresses, the government should conduct a full environmental impact statement (EIS), several of the speakers said Tuesday. 

“An EIS should be done,” Tangipahoa Parish Councilmember Kim Coates said. “You want to see the study before any of this moves forward.”

For his part, Courreges told The Lens on Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers is likely the governmental outfit that would require such an impact statement. 

George told The Lens that Air Products is in the middle of submitting that kind of application.

“The determination of whether an Environmental Impact Statement decision is required will be provided to Air Products by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers once that permit application has been filed for the overall project,” he said. “We are still in the process of developing our submittal to the Corps.”

One piece of a larger project

The Class V test well in St. John the Baptist Parish is just one piece of a larger project that would see Air Products eventually drill Class VI wells, which are used to inject carbon dioxide into geological formations. 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

Associated with the Class VI wells are perhaps the most visually-prominent features of the proposed project in the lake: wellheads and their attendant navigational lights. Each would protrude between six-and-ten feet above the surface of Lake Maurepas. 

Air Products Company plans to construct between 10 and 14 of those platforms, George previously told The Lens. 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 Randy Delatte, Livingston Parish Councilman, questioned Tuesday evening whether those platforms would spell the end to the Tickfaw 200 – an annual event that draws boats from all over the country and brings in millions of dollars revenue to the lake’s surrounding parishes, saying they would pose a physical hazard to boaters unaccustomed to their presence. 

“If there are platforms up or construction going up in the lake, do we lose that tourist industry where those dollars really mean something?” Delatte asked. “They’re really important to us.”

Air Products intends to have the facility operational by 2026. Meanwhile, some experts doubt the technology itself behind carbon capture projects. 

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, Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University who helped publish a recent study on blue hydrogen, previously told The Lens. Jacobson also noted that methane leakage is essentially unavoidable in the blue hydrogen process, and that assuming a 3.5% methane leakage rate would be conservative for this kind of project.  

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%. 

Some efforts have been made at the parish level that would have the effect of slowing down Air Products’ project. For instance, the Livingston Parish Council voted to impose a year-long moratorium on the construction and drilling of Class V injection wells in the parish. Air Products then sued the parish council, arguing that they lacked the authority to impose such a moratorium. 

The ultimate question is whether the lake can survive intact for the benefit of future generations, and whether the Air Products project would contribute to its demise, State Representative William Wheat Jr., Republican of Ponchatoula, said Tuesday. 

“Unfortunately, Lake Maurepas can’t be here and speak for itself,” Wheat said. “But I will tell you, if it were, Lake Maurepas would be telling us all to look around and see what’s happening to me.”

“Is there a breaking point for Lake Maurepas? I’m sitting here telling you that there has to be at some point. It’s our responsibility, all of us, to make sure that that breaking point is never met.”

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...