Communities across south Louisiana 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.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) — capturing the planet-warming gas from industry and storing it permanently underground — has become a top Biden administration solution to meeting the country’s 2050 net-zero emissions goals.

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, many to be funded through provisions and tax credits in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which have ignited the CCS industry.

No such projects have yet been built in Louisiana. And 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.

A state legislative task force is exploring the impacts CCS 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.

So far, residents from predominantly white communities have been the only people showing up to the mid-day legislative task force meetings at the state Capitol to express their objections to CCS.

Their criticisms are focused on a project that would inject carbon captured from a local chemical company underneath Lake Maurepas, a recreational estuary between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Randy Delatte, president-elect for Livingston Parish, told the task force at its most recent meeting on Monday that he worries the carbon will escape through the 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.”

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

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.”

There are more than 20 proposed carbon capture and sequestration projects throughout Louisiana, with thousands of miles of related carbon dioxide pipelines and related infrastructure and equipment at carbon-emitting facilities. (Provided by the 2030 Fund. First published in Carbon Capture & Sequestration in Louisiana, June 2023)

Task force chairman Keith Hall 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 timeframe for concluding the task force’s work.

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.”

Researchers from the state’s universities and advocates from the oil and gas industry testified that they understand those fears but that the potential in job creation and revenue outweigh the probability of catastrophic events related to CCS.

“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 this week 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.

A task force appointed by the Louisiana Senate Committee on Natural Resources has held a series of meetings to gather comments from the public, industry and experts on the local impacts of carbon capture and sequestration. The group is tasked with submitting a report to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources by Feb. 15. (Terry L. Jones/Floodlight)

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

The task force is the brainchild of Republican Sen. Heather Cloud of Turkey Creek. 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 and 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

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. Lavigne led a successful legal fight in 2022 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 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.

Residents in the predominantly white communities surrounding Lake Maurepas in southeast Louisiana have come out in passionate opposition to a carbon capture and sequestration project that could pump 5 million tons of carbon dioxide underneath the lake.

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.

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, citing the quick rejection of the bills aiming to protect Lake Maurepas.

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

“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 nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action.