Environmental groups want regulators to step in to deal with an LNG company

Instead of recalibrating its operations in order to come into compliance with its pollutant allowances, the company asked LDEQ to amend the allowances.

Virginia-based liquified natural gas (LNG) company Venture Global has been on a learning curve since it opened its Calcasieu Pass terminal in Cameron Parish last year.  

The learning curve, as tallied by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, has been steep, replete with more than 2,000 entry points. That’s how many times the Bucket Brigade says that Venture Global violated, or deviated from, its pollutant-permitting allowances, established by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality to govern emissions of carbon, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, among others.

In response, the company asked LDEQ to amend the allowances — a move the Bucket Brigade lambasted.

“It would be as if I got pulled over by a cop for doing 80 in a 60 zone, and rather than give me a ticket, the cop agrees to just raise the speed limit to 80,” Anne Rolfes, the Executive Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said in a statement. “That’s the equivalent. They want to change the parameters by which they are judged rather than comply with the law and their permits.”

Venture Global is seeking varied changes in the permit allowances for its Calcasieu Pass plant. For instance, the company is looking to increase the amount of flaring hours from 60 to 500 – an increase of 733%. They’re also asking the DEQ to increase its allowance of overall air emissions of pollutants from 3.9 million tons to 4.6 million tons, an increase of 17%. 

In response, the Bucket Brigade is seeking federal intervention along with seven other organizations including the Sierra Club and Healthy Gulf. Specifically, they’ve asked the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 (where Louisiana is located) to intercede before LDEQ can, they say, rubber stamp the company’s requests. 

“Without the involvement of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality will grant these modifications,” they wrote. “We ask you to exercise the EPA’s  authority to investigate this facility and intervene to prevent Venture Global from continuing this pattern of blatant non-compliance and skirting the regulations.”

The EPA, for its part, told The Lens it’s received the environmental groups’ letter and is reviewing the matter. 

“Region 6 is happy to respond to this and other groups who have information and concerns to share with us,” a spokesperson said via email on Thursday. “We are reviewing data and will be taking action as needed. We will provide additional information when it is available.”

Venture Global did not respond to a request for comment made by The Lens, but previously stated that it had made improvements that would mitigate deviations in the future.

Greg Langley, a spokesman for LDEQ, said the agency is reviewing Venture Global’s permit violations at Calcasieu Pass. 

“The deviations/violations referred to in the release are under review by the Department, and any action that addresses them will be made available in EDMS upon issuance,” he told The Lens on Wednesday via email. “If appropriate, the Department will coordinate reviews with EPA.”

A booming industry, a warming planet 

Two hundred and sixty degrees below zero Fahrenheit is awful cold. But that’s the temperature methane gas, or natural gas, needs to reach before companies like Venture Global can ship it across the world. Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Pressurizing and liquefying natural gas so that it’s cold enough to be export-ready is an energy-intensive process, to say the least. And right now, there are only a handful of companies operating seven liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, notwithstanding the federal government’s approving additional projects that would triple that number. 

Nationally, there are 25 proposed LNG export terminals, 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, which represents more than half of the country’s LNG exports. 

Without taking the upstream and downstream impacts into consideration, the projects, in total, could emit more than 90 million tons of greenhouse gasses annually, which is almost equivalent to the amount of climate-warming pollution 18 million passenger cars emit per year, according to the report.

The United States is on track to, once again, become the world’s leading exporter of liquified natural gas in 2023. Meanwhile, the planet is on track to exceed the critical warming threshold of 1.5 degrees celsius in the next decade, according to a recent study. 

There are currently seven operational LNG export facilities in the country, three of which are located in Louisiana. Exports from Louisiana constituted more than half of the 3.86 trillion cubic feet of LNG delivered from the United States last year.

Venture Global is looking to become a major player in the LNG export business, with its Calcasieu Pass facility in operation and its Plaquemines LNG currently under construction. The company is looking to build two additional LNG export terminals in the state as well. 

The company recently told the Department of Energy that it’s learned from experience, and is ready to apply those lessons to another one of its projects, Plaquemines LNG, that’s currently under construction and is “technologically-identical” to its Calcasieu Pass plant.

“Plaquemines LNG has advanced and refined the final design of its Project, and learned significant lessons from the actual construction and production experience of the affiliated, and technologically-identical, [Calcasieu Pass] export project,” the company said. .

The Plaquemines project secured initial funding of $13.2 billion last May, and it recently announced it had secured $7.8 billion in its second-phase, and final, funding round. The total funding, approximately $21 billion, constitutes the “largest project financing ever done,” according to the company.

At its peak production capacity, the Plaquemines LNG plant would be able to produce 24 million tons per year (MTPA) of LNG for export. The company has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve an increase of that capacity to 27.2 MTPA. 

Scientists and activists have warned about the deleterious effects the LNG facilities would exert, both in terms of heating the planet and harming communities living in their proximity. 

For instance, a flooding event like Hurricane Ida could have a direct negative impact on the environment and the people living in Plaquemines Parish, 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. 

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. 

The groups sued LDNR in state court in an attempt to force the agency to reconsider its decision to issue a coastal use permit exemption for the project. A state judge dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, and the groups have since filed an appeal. 

But even the more mundane impacts of living next to a facility that emits so much pollution and flares so often can have a profoundly negative impact on people’s lives, John Allaire, a former engineer in the oil and gas industry who lives near the Calcasieu Pass plant, said recently. And it’s not clear to him why the state should defer to them now. 

“There’s no other state in the union that I know of that would allow them to operate in the way they are, out of permit compliance, and then allow them to build another facility,” he said. “It’s ridiculous if you think about it.”

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...