Sulfur mine in Port Sulphur in September 1935. Photo by Arthur Rothstein. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.

Nearly a century before Venture Global began building a massive liquified natural gas export terminal there, Port Sulphur got its start, as a company town. But when the company was finished, it took down much of the town with it. 

Environmentalists and economists see parallels today. They warn that Venture Global’s operation could again extract heavily from Plaquemines Parish, leaving a legacy of pollution in its wake.

Port Sulphur got its start and its name in the 1930s from the Freeport Sulphur Company, which mined sulfur from deposits hundreds of feet below ground in this part of Plaquemines Parish –  Louisiana’s “toe,” a point of land that sticks out into the Gulf of Mexico from the boot-shaped state. 

Freeport  dredged dirt to form a water reservoir, used to create superheated water and pumped deep into the mines to melt the sulfur into liquid and ship it from its new port, Port Sulphur.

With the fill from the reservoir, Freeport built a townsite, with about 200 homes to accommodate the company’s bustling community of workers.

Then, in the 1970s, when the Grande Ecaille mine was depleted, Freeport quickly turned to sulfur deposits elsewhere. The town folded.

Company houses were sold and stripped from the site. Surrounding wetlands were left eroded by industry waste and canals that tore through the marsh, bringing seawater inland. Ghost trees — oak trees that died from saltwater intrusion — rise sporadically throughout the flat marshland, like zombies reaching out from their graves.

“The company’s mission was always to mine sulfur, not build a town or sustain a larger community,” history teacher Larry Foulk wrote in a 2009 article on the Freeport Sulphur Company in the Louisiana History journal. In 2019, the company, now known as Freeport-McMoran, agreed to a $100 million settlement over its role in Louisiana’s rapid coastal land loss.

Now, a new industrial operation is taking shape in the unincorporated community of Port Sulphur, which remains a working-class, rural area. The silhouette of Venture Global’s colossal LNG gas-export terminal looms over the surrounding marsh, visible from miles away to cars driving downriver from New Orleans on Louisiana Highway 23.

When the plant is finished, natural-gas-fired turbines will supercool gas down to -260 degrees Fahrenheit to turn it into a liquid 1/600th its original volume that can be shipped overseas. But at this point, it’s still in progress, a 630-acre construction site, with tower cranes and 130-foot storage tanks peeking over its walls. 

Venture Global did not respond to questions about its terminal under construction in Plaquemines Parish. Once complete, it’s expected to employ 300 operational workers, according to Board of Commerce and Industry meeting notes

Those 300 jobs are subsidized to unbelievable levels, thanks to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP), a state tax-incentive program for manufacturers, created with the goal of luring jobs to Louisiana. 

For its local payroll of a few hundred workers, Venture Global’s ITEP abatement over a 10-year period totals $834 million, said Erin Hansen of Together Louisiana, which monitors ITEP incentives and jobs created. 

That works out to $2.8 million in tax breaks per Venture Global job, Hansen said.

Prefab cuts down construction hires

WHILE PERMANENT PAYROLLS ARE RELATIVELY SMALL – like the estimated 300 for the Plaquemines terminal – thousands of short-term workers can be hired to build large industry plants such as Venture Global’s LNG export terminals. 

But with two of its Louisiana facilities – Cameron Pass and Plaquemines LNG – Venture Global has strategically avoided using a domestic workforce for key construction components. Instead, it built parts of its facilities in Italy and shipped them to the United States. Because of that, Venture Global is building its LNG terminals in Louisiana at a break-neck speed, shattering the timelines set by other, similar terminals constructed in this country.

In August, barges arrived to Louisiana’s shore carrying pre-constructed pieces of the Plaquemines terminal — liquefaction modules that look like giant sets of laboratory vials. To carry the gigantic objects off barges required specialized equipment: self-propelled transporters, vehicles that resemble platforms with wheels.

This type of “modular” construction requires fewer local workers, according to McKinsey and Company. There also seem to be weaknesses in some of the modular components:  plant operators have pointed to the fabrication to explain the generator breakdowns that resulted in more pollution at the company’s Calcasieu Pass LNG export facility, in Cameron Parish, which began exporting in March 2022. Last year, the facility exceeded hourly toxic air pollution limits more than 100 times.

In Plaquemines Parish, trying to quantify the economic benefits of Venture Global’s new facility is difficult, because of Venture Global’s shifting job estimates. In 2016, the company told the Board of Commerce and Industry it would hire 3,000 construction workers. A year later, the company told the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality its total construction workforce, at any given time, would peak at 2,200 workers. Promises about how many of those workers would be hired from the local area also dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent, according to documents from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC),

Though Venture Global has likely hired some Louisiana crews, many construction workers arrived from out of town and are living in RVs parked near the plant. Those who commute to Plaquemines from elsewhere are burdening local roads with constant traffic jams and the potential for more accidents.

It gets worse. Last month, to meet the company’s accelerated timelines, FERC approved Venture Global’s request to increase construction to 24 hours per day and 7 days a week for the Plaquemines LNG terminal, which could increase the temporary workforce to 6,000 people – that has doubled or even tripled the number of workers expected to be on-site at one time.

Venture Global implemented staggered work schedules, to try and reduce traffic impacts. But without enough housing in the area, the precipitous increase in out-of-town workers – commuting on the same roads within a narrow peninsula – is still expected to exacerbate traffic to the point that it’s inspired its own Facebook page, called “Plaquemines LNG Traffic.”

The data tells the story of what happens when vehicles overwhelm roads, said Trey Cowan, an oil and gas industry analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “You’ve got more accidents and more fatalities,” he said. “That’s what we see with not just LNG but other oil and gas operations,” 

But, as with Freeport Sulphur Company in the 1970s, environmental advocates watching Venture Global see its potential to prioritize profits over resident well-being and safety.

Last month, despite the saltwater intrusion in the Mississippi River, environmental groups warned FERC that the Venture Global construction site was adding pressure on already-strained drinking water sources in Plaquemines Parish. Even as construction machines whirred on the Venture Global site, thousands of Plaquemines residents were without water and thousands more up the river could have been threatened by the overuse of water downriver.

Throughout this time, the Plaquemines LNG construction site used up to 100,000 gallons of freshwater per day, according to an environmental assessment for the facility. 

What some observers saw as corporate selfishness, at the expense of resident drinking water, could come back to haunt the plant, because of possible weaknesses in concrete made with water that contains high levels of salt, according to the October 6 letter from Healthy Gulf, Sierra Club and Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which described the construction as a “threat to the public welfare” in the area.

The town of Port Sulphur in June 1943. Photo by John Vachon / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.

Venture Global grandfathered into ITEP rules

WITH THE STATE UNDER FIRE FOR ITEP’S MISUSE, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards reformed the program in 2016 by issuing two executive orders that reduced exemptions to 80% of property tax totals, gave local taxing bodies a say in tax-abatements and established modest jobs-reporting requirements. 

Edwards’ orders seven years ago amended the state’s ITEP rules, ending the practice that had awarded companies 100% property tax exemptions for up to 10 years.

Since then, some local taxing bodies – school boards and parish governments, for example – have given closer scrutiny to ITEP deals that exempt industries from paying millions in tax revenue, to fuel the work of local school districts, parish governments and law enforcement. In 2019, East Baton Rouge Parish School Board voted against a tax break for Exxon Mobil. That same year, St. John the Baptist School Board rejected an ITEP request from Marathon Petroleum’s Garyville refinery.

But Venture Global’s applications for two of its LNG export terminals – Calcasieu Pass and Plaquemines – slipped in under the wire, allowing the company 100% property-tax abatements without local say. 

As a result, over the next decade, Calcasieu Pass LNG will avoid $3.4 billion in property taxes, instead of contributing to the well-being of the community around them, said Roishetta Sibley Ozane, founder of The Vessel Project, a southwest-Louisiana mutual aid organization. 

“Imagine if they paid a portion of those taxes, what our kids’ classrooms could look like, how we could increase teacher pay,” Sibley Ozane said.

The Venture Global tax breaks were possible because any pre-2016 applications were grandfathered in, under the old ITEP framework. So the company submitted “advance notice” of its applications before the governor’s reforms were enacted on June 24, 2016. Then, in December 2016 – nearly five years before construction began on the Plaquemines facility – the Venture Global ITEP tax breaks were approved by Louisiana’s Board of Commerce and Industry. 

The grandfathering continues even beyond Venture Global’s initial, five-year ITEP award, which kicks in once the plants are operational. After five years, it goes back to the Board of Commerce and Industry, which can renew it, adding five more years to the tax break.

But because Venture Global’s awards are grandfathered in, before the governor’s orders required local input, their renewals – like their initial award – aren’t subject to a local vote, said Mark Lorando, director of communications for Louisiana Economic Development. 

At the state board, it’s likely that Venture Global’s ITEP tax abatement will be renewed. Almost all abatements are. Historically, the state board has approved 99.95% of applications, according to Together Louisiana.

At this point, many environmental questions remain: about Venture Global’s terminals, their emissions and the possible environmental impact of plans to pump carbon underground, through Carbon Capture and Storage.

But the economic picture seems crystal clear. Once Venture Global gets its multi-billion facility in Plaquemines up and running, the company will avoid property taxes for the next 10 years.