Optical gas-imaging cameras show plumes of purple and dark blue whenever the instrument detects leaks of methane, a key component of natural gas that is a potent greenhouse gas. These images, from Earthworks, are of the Sempra Cameron LNG plant.

Air-monitoring consultant James Doty can see pollution that’s invisible to the naked eye. The lens of his optical gas-imaging camera shows pollution in a rainbow of colors that reveal temperature differences. 

His reports set the scene for each site, describing the weather, wind direction, temperature, time of day – and methane emissions.

“The sky was partly cloudy, and it was warm with south-southeasterly winds, as this Venture Global LNG facility was actively and continuously releasing significant methane emissions to the atmosphere,” he wrote in one entry, in June. 

All of the liquified natural gas export terminals in Texas and Louisiana that he’s looked at through this instrument had one thing in common: “huge emissions,” said Doty, who was hired by Earthworks to look at Louisiana pollution after managing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s mobile air-monitoring program for 17 years.

Through his camera lens, he sees plumes of dark blue and purple whenever his instrument detects leaks of a key natural-gas component, methane – a greenhouse gas that can trap 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In 2016, the U.S. exported its first tanker of liquified natural gas, or LNG, from Cheniere’s Energy’s Sabine Pass terminal in Cameron Parish. Since then, fossil fuel firms have built four more export terminals in the Gulf South with plans for 20 more. Even before the terminals were built, the initial emissions estimates to regulators were so alarming that some environmental advocates described the planned facilities as “carbon bombs.”

Now, it seems that the reality is more grim than the predictions. All five of the active LNG export terminals in the Gulf South have leaked pollutants. People who live near the export terminals say the facilities are belching higher levels of toxic and climate-warming pollution into the air than originally estimated – which threatens the air quality of communities already burdened by pollution. 

For example, Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass export facility, in south Louisiana, exceeded hourly emissions limits of its air permits more than 100 times in 2022, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, which sent the company a consolidated compliance order in June, warning that fines were possible. 

Industry marketing campaigns tout natural gas as a “cleaner” alternative, because burning it produces about half as much carbon dioxide as coal, to generate the same amount of energy. But leaks and emissions can erase those benefits, because natural gas is primarily composed of methane, the potent greenhouse gas.

“Any perception that LNG facilities are clean and don’t have big emissions is absolutely false,” Doty said, describing what he saw over the course of two days last summer, as he pointed his camera at three LNG facilities in Cameron Parish.

“LNG emissions were prevalent at all three facilities and filled the horizon above the companies and in the downwind airshed,” Doty wrote in his assessment. One location – the Cheniere Sabine Pass LNG site – “stood out in magnitude from the others,” he wrote. 

Instead of lowering their emissions, two Gulf Coast LNG facilities, one in Louisiana and one in Texas, have asked state officials to make the situation right by increasing the amount of pollution they are permitted to spew into the air.

All together, in the United States, 25 planned projects to expand and build new export terminals will produce more than 90 million tons of greenhouse gasses annually, according to “Playing with Fire: the Climate Impact of the Rapid Growth of LNG,” a 2022 report from the Environmental Integrity Project that based its conclusions on the projected emissions given to regulators before the facilities were granted permits.

“That’s almost as much climate-warming pollution as 18 million passenger vehicles running for a year,” the report noted.

Launching with leaks – LNG export terminals

Roishetta Sibley Ozane has been trying to stop the buildout of export facilities in southwest Louisiana near Sulphur, where she lives with her six children. 

“We keep saying how these emissions are killing the local community,” said Ozane, an environmental organizer who founded a mutual-aid organization called the Vessel Project, to help her neighbors meet basic needs. “All of these pollutants lead to respiratory problems. The children, the elderly and those with preexisting conditions are particularly vulnerable.”

Ozane has experienced dire effects within her own household. “We went to the doctor and they told me I had a skin disease that I can’t even pronounce,” wrote Ozane’s 10-year-old daughter, Kamea Sibley Ozane, in an op-ed in Teen Vogue. “The doctors ran more tests and they told me that my skin condition is caused by my environment— the air around me is peeling off my skin.”

Four years ago, about 15 miles south of Ozane’s neighborhood, Sempra’s Cameron LNG terminal began the process of supercooling natural gas into a liquid to be shipped to Asia and Europe. Within 24 hours of production starting at the facility, LNG leaked into the air, according to a letter from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which fined the company $41,600 for the leak.

It took less time for a leak to develop at the Calcasieu Pass LNG terminal, about 20 miles further south. The day before Venture Global began operating the facility, in 2022, more than 180,000 lbs of natural gas was released from an LNG storage tank, according to a report submitted to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, or LDEQ. 

Throughout its first year of operation, the Calcasieu Pass facility continued to struggle with leaks: it was out of compliance with its air permits for 286 days, or most of the year, according to a report by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.

To be in compliance with its permits, Venture Global has asked LDEQ to increase its carbon dioxide emissions limit by 17% and increase its toxic emissions limits by 17%. According to the company’s permit-modification request, the proposed emissions increases are necessary because of operational and design issues. 

That explanation didn’t make sense to Anne Rolfes, the director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “They’ve got significant problems all over the place,” she said. “And then their response is not to fix any problems but then apply to the state to increase their permits.”

The state has not yet approved the permit increase, said LDEQ spokesman Gregory Langley. “LDEQ has not projected a date by which a final decision will be made,” he said. Venture Global did not respond to requests for comment.

The Calcasieu Pass plant is not the only Gulf Coast LNG export facility to request an increase in its air permits. 

Since it began operating in 2018, Cheniere’s Corpus Christi facility has exceeded its permitted emissions hundreds of times, according to a 2022 analysis by Reuters. On three occasions, the LNG facility has asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, to increase emissions caps, doubling the originally permitted level of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

A Cheniere spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about emissions at the facility.

Neighbors of the Corpus Christi terminal have pushed for transparency and accountability about releases, but they still aren’t typically alerted when the facility is polluting above permitted limits. 

Instead, neighbors mostly hear about the excess emissions after they are reported to TCEQ, said Chloe Torres, the Coastal Bend Regional Coordinator for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “And by then, people have been breathing in these toxic chemicals and had no idea.”

Torres lives about 15 miles away from the Corpus Christi LNG export terminal. 

The facility burps gas through its flares so often that locals refer to it as “Motel 6,” Torres said – “Because they leave the light on.” 

LNG could warm the atmosphere for generations to come

Beyond the export-terminal emissions are other far-reaching effects of LNG, said Alexandra Shaykevich, co-author of the Environmental Integrity Project report that tallied the greenhouse-gas emissions of the two-dozen planned LNG export projects. 

Despite the marketing campaigns about cleaner, greener natural gas, natural emissions accumulate all along the “lifespan” of natural gas – as it is drilled, piped and eventually burned to make energy, she said. 

And each step contributes to global warming. 

“We know these are huge sources of air emissions,” Shaykevich said. “They’re certainly incompatible with our long-term goals to hit net zero.” (Net-zero refers to commitments by national governments, organizations, and industry to negate the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by reducing emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere.)

Louisiana is especially vulnerable to climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, tropical storms will produce more rainfall and higher storm surge, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. At the same time, coastal protection of barrier islands and wetlands continue to wither away.

In 2020, Roishetta Sibley Ozane, the Sulphur community activist, lost her home to Hurricane Laura, which produced storm surge levels more than 17 feet high. The storm’s extensive damage triggered an affordable-housing crunch, forcing her and her children to live in a FEMA trailer for two years. 

“We are in a climate emergency,” Ozane said. “It’s crucial to take into account the increased harm these increased pollutants cause the communities. We must put people over profit.”

Sara Sneath is a freelance investigative climate reporter based in New Orleans.