About 30 miles south of New Orleans, near “the end of the world” — where the land is sinking and the wetlands are disappearing and the sea is rising — there are orange signs impressed with images of dump trucks dotting both sides of the main road that runs lengthwise down the most southeastern parish in Louisiana. 

Duly cautioned, drivers and passengers embarking down Louisiana Highway 23 through Plaquemines Parish — a peninsula that hugs and holds fast to the final stretch of the Mississippi River as it meanders and utimately powers into the Gulf of Mexico — are soon greeted by the construction site keeping the truck drivers (who, as the road signs suggest, abound) so busy these days: Venture Global’s $13.2 billion Plaquemines LNG plant. 

Route 23 stretches to Venice, La. — nicknamed “the end of the world.” 

One day, this export facility may be capable of exporting at least 1,400 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year around the world. But when, exactly, that day might be is hard to say. 

The Virginia-based liquified natural gas (LNG) company Venture Global originally stated the plant would be operational by the middle of 2025. But in December, the company told federal regulators it had “experienced several delays due to severe weather,” which resulted in “slower overall construction progress.” 

In order to make up the difference, Venture Global would like to shift to a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week work rotation for about six months, the company told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the federal agency with primary oversight into the project.

In its variance request, the company said that it “anticipates substantially completing” the project by December 2025, which is presumably conditioned on the premise that the government approves the requested workforce increase. 

There’s an inherent, albeit unarticulated, irony in the company’s request: scientists have linked human-caused climate change to the increased severity of storm systems like hurricanes and to sea level rise; and yet Venture Global’s project, which apparently was delayed due to severe weather events, will itself contribute substantively to climate change. 

A growing industry

The natural gas that Venture Global will eventually ship across the globe —once it’s been sufficiently cooled, or supercooled, to the tune of negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit — is composed largely of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

There are 25 proposed LNG export terminals that could become operational throughout the country, 12 of which would be located in Louisiana, according to a report published by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group. The Louisiana projects alone could emit some 57 million tons of greenhouse gasses each year, according to the group’s data. 

Venture Global did not respond to a request for comment in which The Lens sought to clarify which weather events caused the delay in construction. 

Louisianans are no strangers to severe weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes and supercharged storms — yet the past year’s hurricane season, which officially stretched, as it does, from June through November, was anomalously mild, with no “named” storms making landfall in the state. 

That kind of quiet, though, is unlikely to last for long.

It’s the specter of future highly intense storms, and the government’s underestimation thereof, that led Ivor van Heerden, the former Louisiana State University professor (who predicted the kind of devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused in 2005) to conclude the Plaquemines LNG project plan is fundamentally misguided. Nearly 1,400 people lost their lives during and after Katrina, according to the official tally. 

“It is my opinion that the authors of the permit application as well as the reviewing agencies have to date failed to adequately consider and even ignored three very important and pertinent phenomena that characterize coastal Louisiana, namely: climate change and accelerating sea level rise; hurricanes and their associated surges; and thunderstorms ‘on steroids,’” van Heerden said in a June 2022 report commissioned by the environmental group Sierra Club. 

The construction site itself — which is located below-sea level in an area known as “Deer Range Lake” — flooded during Hurricane Ida in 2021, and is highly susceptible to substantial flooding in similar weather events, he said in the report.

“Building a facility at an elevation of -5 feet [North American Vertical Datum of 1988] in close proximity to [Barataria] Bay that is in turn connected to the Gulf of Mexico with its killer storm surges and on the west side of the Mississippi River, is a recipe for a catastrophe,” van Heerden said, referring to the measurement system surveyors and others rely on to determine elevation. The state of Louisiana recently announced the Army Corps of Engineers has greenlit its $2.5 billion sediment diversion project at Barataria Bay.

Ida generally devastated the area, with Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser referring to Plaquemines Parish at the time as a “war zone,” and many residents are still recovering from the destruction. 

A flooding event like that one could have a direct and substantially negative impact on the environment and the people living in the area, three environmental groups said in a lawsuit they filed last year, in which they argued, among other things, that the project cannot proceed until the state’s permitting authority, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), issues a coastal use permit (CUP) for the project. 

LDNR’s determination in 2019 that a CUP was not required for the project was correct, the agency said, because the project is located in so-called fastlands — or land that’s surrounded by levees.

But data collected since then, including from Hurricane Ida, demonstrates the facility would indeed have a direct impact on coastal waters, which is why the agency must reconsider its decision to grant an exception, the groups said. They argued that neither the existing levees, nor the 26-foot storm wall and levee system the company has committed to build, would adequately prevent damage to the facility. 

It’s a matter of when, not if, a weather event will produce water levels and storm surges that will overtop those levee protections, the groups argue. 

The levees ‘can and will be topped’

Data collected post-Ida demonstrates such a ring-levee would have needed to be 27-feet high — higher than the company’s proposed wall —  in order to have prevented flooding from storm surge during that storm, the groups argued. A separate storm that tracks differently could produce 37 feet of combined storm surge and wave height, they argued.

“This new data and modeling demonstrate that currently-existing levees were demonstrably insufficient to prevent flooding during Hurricane Ida, and Venture Global’s planned 26-foot levees likewise will not prevent flooding the Plaquemines LNG site,” the groups said. 

Also not included in LDNR’s analysis from 2019 are reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 2022 that predict significant sea-level rise within the next few decades, the groups noted in their petition. Louisiana’s coastline water levels, for instance, could increase  two feet by 2050, according to NOAA. 

Linear modeling suggests that an additional foot of sea-level rise could result in additional storm surge height of three to five feet, while other studies show that an additional foot of sea-level rise could produce increased storm surge heights of 23 feet, the groups said, noting the project’s proposed lifespan would intersect with the sea-level rise predictions laid out by NOAA and the IPCC. 

“This sea level rise is significant because the project would operate for at least 30 years, and it supports the modeling described above that indicate the 26-foot levees can and will be topped by major storms and hurricanes,” they said. “When the levees around the Plaquemines LNG site are overtopped, there will be direct and significant impacts on coastal waters.”

LDNR, for its part, has argued that it did evaluate the impacts of hurricanes and severe weather events before issuing the exemption — and that, as a practical matter, the groups missed the statutory window of opportunity in which they could have challenged the agency’s determination. Next month, Judge Wilson Fields of the 19th Judicial District Court will issue his decision on LDNR’s motion to dismiss the case, he said on Monday. 

Still, the unnecessary risks abound, the groups argued in their petition. The supercooled natural gas, for instance, would kill any organisms and plant life on contact; and methane leaks, even if not ignited, could result in asphyxiation and death for organisms, including humans, exposed to their vapor clouds. And if ignited, those methane vapor clouds could “burn as a pool fire,” they said. 

What’s more, any issues with the facility during a severe weather event could dangerously complicate the evacuation process for residents living in the lower part of the parish, Naomi Yoder, staff scientist at the environmental group Healthy Gulf, which helped file the lawsuit, recently told The Lens. Yoder uses gender-neutral pronouns. 

The fact that Venture Global is asking the federal government if it can almost double the number of workers it has in the region as part of its variance request poses its own hazard, they said. 

“What happens when you have an evacuation order?” they said. “It’s not like [Venture Global doesn’t] know that there’s going to be another storm, and it’s very likely that one of those storms could hit during their construction time.”

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...