Sharon Lavigne, a leader of Rise St. James, a grassroots environmental advocacy group in her predominantly Black community, says her neighbors are mostly unaware of how carbon capture and sequestration works. (Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize)

Communities of people across south Louisiana say that they want to protect themselves from what they consider to be a risky and possibly dangerous prospect of having tons of carbon dioxide injected underground to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

A state legislative task force is now exploring the impacts this could have in Louisiana. 

But those living in lower income or majority-minority communities worry that voices from neighborhoods that are whiter and galvanize more quickly will have a greater say in where these projects go — or if they will be built. 

The process, called Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) — is meant to capture the planet-warming gas from industry and store it permanently underground. 

It’s become a top Biden administration solution to meeting the country’s 2050 net-zero emissions goals, though critics say it’s a dangerous end-run that allows polluters to take the focus off of reducing overall emissions.

One of the nation’s potential hotspots for CCS, Louisiana has at least 20 underground carbon dioxide storage projects in the planning or development stages, most concentrated in the southeastern part of the state. In addition, a sprawling network of pipeline expansions to carry the gas is planned, much of it to be funded through provisions and tax credits in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that have ignited the CCS industry. 

But the lack of minority voices so far in the process has Jade Woods, a representative from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Environmental Law, worried that state leaders won’t realize how widespread opposition to CCS is in Louisiana. 

“The problem we’re seeing is that some communities have more power than others; that goes back to access to land, resources and education,” Woods said. “There are folks on the ground who are doing a lot of work, even if they aren’t able to show up in strong force to some of these task force meetings. I want to make sure that doesn’t get lost.” 

No carbon-capture projects have yet been built in Louisiana. But there are worries about the safety and efficacy of CCS after a 2020 leak of a carbon pipeline in Satartia, Mississippi sent 45 people to the hospital.

Others don’t yet know enough to be concerned. Sharon Lavigne, a leader of Rise St. James, a grassroots environmental advocacy group in her predominantly Black community, says her neighbors are mostly unaware of how carbon capture and sequestration works. “Lots of people don’t understand it,” she said. “They think it’s a good thing because they don’t know the health effects of it.” 

To date, residents from predominantly white communities have been the majority of people showing up to the midday legislative task force meetings at the state Capitol to express their objections to CCS.

At the task force’s most recent meeting last Monday, a small crowd gathered, with concerns about a project that would inject carbon captured from a local chemical company deep underneath Lake Maurepas, a recreational estuary between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

Such a project has concerned environmentalists and recreational boaters alike for a year now.  

Daytime hearings

At the task force’s most recent meeting on Monday, Randy Delatte, president-elect for Livingston Parish said that he worries the carbon injected far below the water will escape through 52 nearby abandoned oil and gas wells. 

“Our concern is Lake Maurepas,” Delatte said. “Our concern is that the people are not being heard.” 

Darren Burns, who testified during the Nov. 29 meeting, said CCS would transform the lake into an industrial dumpsite.

“This is not clean energy; it’s dirty,” Burns said in his impassioned plea. “Have you done your homework? This will produce more carbon than it captures.” 

Lisa Cothern, another defender of Lake Maurepas, said: “There is no guarantee this stuff is never going to leak.”

People from low-income or otherwise-vulnerable communities are likely to face more obstacles in traveling to Baton Rouge to testify or hear testimony on CCS and a wide range of other issues.

Keith Hall, chair of the carbon-capture task force, said the group has been operating under the assumption that meetings were to take place at the state Capitol during business hours, like all other legislative committees. 

“None of us asked that question if we could meet later in the evening or in other places,” said Hall, director of Louisiana State University’s Energy Law Center. “It would be great if we had more comments from other areas.”

Hall doesn’t think there would be time to hold additional meetings outside of Baton Rouge given the tight, two-month timeframe that remains for concluding the task force’s work. 

Researchers from the state’s universities and advocates from the oil and gas industry testified that they understand the fears from residents and fishermen, but that CCS’s potential for job creation and revenue outweigh the probability of catastrophic events. 

“This is an opportunity to take federal money coming in and create jobs,” said Mike Moncla, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. “We can’t keep our talent here because there are no jobs.” 

Proposed projects are in a holding pattern as the state waits to see if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will grant Louisiana permitting authority, called primacy, over the Class VI injection wells used to store carbon dioxide underground. 

But environmental advocates claim the state doesn’t have the personnel or political will to properly regulate injection wells, which could further harm residents in marginalized communities already overburdened by pollution from the oil and gas industry. 

Monique Edwards, commissioner of conservation for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, testified at this week’s meeting that the state will have seven positions dedicated to Class VI inspections and eight additional technical and field workers handling the oversight of the state’s CCS program should primacy authority be granted. 

“Our office can and will provide a (more) robust and efficient review of the applications and the oversight of operations than the EPA can and without sacrificing protective standards,” Edwards said in her prepared statement. 

Task force launches

The legislative task force held its first meeting in late November, nearly three months after the body was supposed to start its work. It is mandated to submit a full report of its findings to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources by Feb. 15.

That short window is another concern for Woods, of the Center for International Environmental Law, who fears the public wasn’t given enough time to weigh in. But Woods sees the fact that the task force is accepting comments outside of meeting times is “a good sign.” The public can submit written statements to

The task force is the brainchild of state Sen. Heather Cloud, a Republican from Turkey Creek, La. Her bill framed CCS as having “massive” potential for job creation, energy production and tax revenue. A recent analysis by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory projected the country’s decarbonization efforts could create more than 444,000 long-term jobs.

The task force includes Hall, from the LSU Energy Law Center, another LSU professor, attorneys specializing in environmental law or industry and a member of the state Attorney General’s Office. 

Member Greg Upton, interim director of LSU’s Center for Energy Studies, recently testified before a congressional subcommittee that reducing fossil fuel use would put the country’s burgeoning CCS industry at risk by cutting available carbon. 

“In my opinion, policies aimed at reducing fossil fuel supply in the U.S. put this decarbonization strategy at risk, as investments in decarbonizing this industrial supply chain are likely to slow if firms anticipate reduced access to feedstocks,” Upton said. 

Questions about CCS safety loom 

For people who live and work near CCS sites, there are also concerns around the potential for earthquakes, groundwater contamination and CO2 leaking back into the atmosphere through the thousands of abandoned and unplugged oil wells already scattered throughout Louisiana.

Lavigne speaks at town hall meetings and canvasses neighborhoods in her community in St. James Parish to educate people on CCS. In 2022, Lavigne led a successful legal fight against a petrochemical facility whose expansion would have tripled the pollution rates in the region. 

James Hiatt, founder of For a Better Bayou, and Kaitlyn Joshua, a community organizer for the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, are doing similar outreach in the industrial-heavy, disadvantaged communities in Lake Charles and Ascension Parish. CCS is becoming a hot-button issue in both areas, which are already plagued with pollution from petrochemical and liquefied natural gas facilities. 

“Everybody is skeptical of them storing whatever underground for eternity,” Hiatt said. “It’s unknown. No one wants to be the guinea pig.” 

Hiatt, like Lavigne, says just because people from their communities haven’t attended task force meetings doesn’t mean they are any less concerned about the impacts carbon capture and pipeline projects will have on their areas. Lake Charles is a more than two-hour drive from Baton Rouge, and St. James Parish is about an hour away from the capital city. 

Joshua says holding meetings in the middle of the day at the state Capitol feels like state leaders want to exclude voices from those living in marginalized communities. She’s rallying parents wanting to stop a project that would be located less than a mile from an elementary school in Sorrento. 

“It’s really hard trying to get ahead of this,” she said. “That can be challenging in a community that’s so friendly to industry. But with carbon capture, we’re seeing folks have concerns about it.”

Lake Maurepas focus of concern

So far, the proposed project that has received the most attention and public outcry is in southeast Louisiana. 

There, chemical company Air Products hopes to drill wells into Lake Maurepas to pump 5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually approximately a mile underneath the lakebed instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. 

Determined to preserve the lake’s ecosystem, residents in the mostly white rural communities surrounding it quickly gained the attention of their legislative representatives who filed bills for the 2023 session seeking to stop the carbon dioxide storage underneath the lake. But none of the measures passed.

Citing the quick rejection of the bills, Laurie Sagnibene, a Baton Rouge resident who also owns a second home along the lake, doesn’t feel like their voices have had much power.

The opposition to the Lake Maurepas bills was fierce: Air Products hired 25 lobbyists ahead of this year’s session to push back against the citizen opposition to the Maurepas project. 

To see the muscle of corporate America flexed during a legislative session makes testimony during task-force meetings even more important to Sagnibene and her neighbors, who simply want their voices to be heard.

“We don’t have the funds that they do but we have us, as citizens, and that should be enough,” said Sagnibene, who has attended every task force meeting so far. “I know it’s not just us. Across the board, you see this melting pot of Louisiana coming together who are not for it.”

Floodlight is a non-profit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action.

Previous reporting from former Lens reporter Josh Rosenberg was included in this story.