As we drove by the long chain of refineries and other petrochemical facilities that surround the small town of Port Arthur, Texas, noxious fumes wafted into our truck. The residents of Port Arthur, Groves and towns along the Gulf Coast are forced to inhale polluted air day in and day out.
“Smell that? To some people it smells like money, but it’s death to us,” said John Beard III of the Port Arthur Community Action Network. “That’s the smell of death.”
Colleagues from Friends of the Earth Japan and I traveled to Texas and Louisiana in early November for a week-long tour, organized graciously by Texas Campaign for the Environment, to witness and learn about the impacts of LNG development on local communities. We also discussed opportunities for our Fossil Free Japan coalition to collaborate to pressure the Japanese government and corporations to stop financing fossil fuel development in the Gulf South.
“And people fish from these waterways”
Beard’s family has a long history of fighting against LNG and petrochemical development. Their community has been battered directly both by fossil fuel development and by the intense hurricanes and drought worsened by the climate crisis. The fracking boom in the Permian basin and the lifting of the crude oil export ban in 2015 spurred massive LNG and petrochemical development along the Gulf Coast.
Communities in Port Arthur, largely communities of color, once thrived off of the rich fisheries from the lakes and waterways. However, the proliferation of LNG projects and petrochemical facilities, coupled with regulatory failure to enforce environmental standards, have allowed the fossil fuel industry to severely pollute the air and water without consequence. When there is significant water runoff during storms, petrochemical facilities dump untreated wastewater into local waterways. “And people fish from these waterways,” said Beard.
Communities bear the brunt of the suffering, particularly in terms of their health. Residents of Port Arthur and other communities on the Gulf Coast suffer from high rates of cancer, respiratory infections and migraines. Beard personally underwent kidney dialysis as a teenager and had a kidney transplant at the age of 22.
Water security is also an issue. Industrial water use is prioritized over the needs of local residents. Pipelines and other water-related infrastructure was developed by local governments for LNG facilities which use huge amounts of water and are charged at the same rates as residential customers. These facilities are “just big water hogs,” said Jeffrey Jacoby of Texas Campaign for the Environment.
Five LNG terminals are currently operating along the Gulf Coast with many more planned or under construction. The Port Arthur and Golden Pass terminals are currently under construction and the nearby Sabine Pass LNG terminal, the largest in the US, has been operating since 2016.
The Japanese government is the largest global financier of LNG export terminals, providing 50 percent of international public finance, or $39.7 billion, for LNG export capacity built from 2012-2022, as well as projects under construction or expected to be built by 2026. In the Gulf South, Japan’s export credit agencies, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Nippon Export and Investment Insurance, provided $3.7 billion in financing for the Freeport LNG terminal and $4.5 billion for Cameron LNG in 2014. The Japanese and Korean governments are also rolling out plans to develop new ammonia and hydrogen production and export facilities globally including in Lake Charles and Corpus Christi. These projects would worsen the climate crisis and subject communities to further exploitation and harm.
Explosion at Freeport
Before dawn on June 8 last year, an explosion at the Freeport LNG export terminal sent a fireball 450 feet in the sky and released roughly 120,000 cubic feet of LNG, methane. The force from the blast thrusted a lifeguard off of their perch and prompted a toddler wandering on the nearby beach to fall face first onto a rocky outcropping, shared Melanie Oldham and Jenny Loehr from the frontline group Better Brazoria.
The explosion happened after a safety valve on a pipeline was inadvertently left closed, causing the pipe to over pressurize and burst. The $14 billion plant was completely shut down for 8 months. Investigations by the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that the owner Freeport LNG violated a condition of the project’s approval. Instead of having over 200 employees working onsite, FERC found that Freeport LNG, was 94 employees short. They also uncovered that workers were suffering from “operator fatigue” from working 12-hour-long shifts and other hazardous conditions.
This is a prime example of corporations prioritizing profits over environmental protection and the well-being of people. “We face all of the dangers and risks from this project every single day and receive very few benefits,” said Oldham. “The company makes billions of dollars and couldn’t invest enough to make the plant safe.”
In 2021, Freeport LNG, led by billionaire CEO Michael Smith, made $5 million per day in tolling revenues. The company only received federal approval a few weeks ago to restart full operations, over 16 months after the accident.
The neglect and cutting corners of the operation of the Freeport LNG facility reflects its lack of care and respect for communities neighboring the facility. After the Freeport explosion, the company failed to show up to a public hearing to share what had happened.
The town of Freeport was once a thriving community that relied on the shrimp industry, historically one of the region’s top industries. However, fisheries have declined as LNG, refineries and other petrochemical facilities were developed and degraded the environment. Freeport resident Jenny shared that her grandson recently caught a fish so damaged by pollution that its scales were falling off.
The Port of Freeport has also spent the last 20 years purchasing properties and forcing out residents of Freeport’s historic East End, a historically black community developed during segregation. Most have been bought or forced out. Now the land they were relegated to and have built their lives around has been bought up for further expansion of the port area.
Japan’s push for Gulf Coast fossil expansion
Despite the serious health and safety concerns with the Freeport LNG terminal, Japan’s export credit insurance agency NEXI is planning to support the expansion of the Cameron LNG terminal located on Calcasieu Lake in Louisiana. JERA, the world’s largest corporate importer of LNG, has 20-year offtake agreements with Freeport, purchases LNG from Cameron and Calcasieu Pass export terminals, and signed an agreement this year to offtake 1 mtpa for 20 years from the proposed Calcasieu Pass 2 LNG export terminal, which is facing strong resistance.
“JERA has to seriously consider whether they want to be part of a dirty, risky project,” said Oldham.
Recently, the Japanese government announced plans with South Korea to develop a joint ammonia/hydrogen supply network supported by public finance. Co-firing of ammonia at coal power plants and hydrogen at gas plants would prolong the use of fossil fuels and delay the transition to renewable energy in Asia. Yet, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation signed agreements this year to develop ammonia production facilities along the Gulf in Corpus Christi and Lake Charles.
Centering profits over people
Travis Dardar stared out the window of his shrimping boat as he reminisced about his life in Calcasieu Parish before the Calcasieu Pass LNG terminal was built. Dardar started shrimping when he was six. As we traveled along the waterways towards the Gulf of Mexico, brown pelicans and dolphins traveled by our side.
Local fishermen used to catch 700,000 pounds of shrimp per year before the Calcasieu Pass LNG export terminal started operating last year, said James Hiatt, founder of For a Better Bayou. So far this year, local fishermen have faced a 90% decline in shrimp catch. Fishermen have suffered from losses in crab catch as well, but no compensation has been provided. The area has been facing a serious drought and an increase in ship traffic with LNG tankers. As if on queue during our trip, a Japanese LNG tanker passed by dwarfing our shrimp boat as it traveled to fill up at the Cameron LNG export terminal.
Dardar used to live 300 feet from the proposed Calcasieu Pass 2 terminal. Once construction started, vibrations in his house would knock the pictures off his walls. His kids suffered from illness and his wife had a heart attack. “By the time they build their plants, it will be all plants and no fish. If these LNG projects are so good, why are all the fishermen on their knees and the executives’ pockets are lined with cash?”
According to research by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Venture Global’s Calcasieu Pass LNG export terminal violated its air pollution permits on 286 of the first 343 days it was in operation, 83% of its first year. Instead of trying to clean up its operations, Venture Global petitioned the state air quality agency to increase its allowable pollution limits. The company also received $184 million in tax exemptions for one year. Meanwhile, local communities up and down the coast suffer from lack of funding which has left business districts struggling and the schools with insufficient resources. Venture Global has plans to build the Plaquemines, Delta and Calcasieu Pass 2 LNG terminals.
“I’m disgusted they want to build two more LNG terminals here and more upstream when they can’t even follow the rules here,” said Dardar. “They don’t follow the rules or even try to and there are no consequences if they don’t. They take so much and give so little back.”
Hiatt reflected about the gorgeous wetlands surrounding us in Calcasieu parish with its cheniers and water features. “The wetlands are like a grocery store – they’ve been providing and blessing our families for generations. And they want to pave it over for fossil fuel exports to continue exploiting the land.”
“We say we love our neighbor but we pollute nonstop and act like we can extract and exploit without end, and we can’t. We all just have one life. What are we doing if we only center profits and not people?” said Hiatt. “I just think about my children and their children and about the suffering we’re inflicting on them because we couldn’t break free from our addiction to fossil fuels.”
No more “sacrifice zones”
Over and over, frontline organizers said these areas are considered sacrifice zones. Our new report, Biden’s Fossil Fuel Fail, shows that under the Inflation Reduction Act U.S. oil and gas production will continue to grow – particullary, due to escape hatches for LNG exports and petrochemicals that disproportionately impact communities in the Gulf South. Dardar’s response to Japanese importers, “Don’t buy LNG. It’s not worth it. It’s like selling your soul to the devil. You don’t sacrifice someone’s life for someone else.”
The fossil fuel industry’s egregious human rights violations of already marginalized communities in the Gulf Coast was shocking and particularly for our Japanese colleagues who assumed this wouldn’t happen in the US. They drew parallels with the environmental and social destruction caused by Japanese-financed fossil fuel projects in Indonesia and the Philippines.
“What’s happening in the Gulf South is happening in the Global South,” said Roishetta Ozane, founder of The Vessel Project and Finance Coordinator with Texas Campaign for the Environment, during a Power Up rally in New Orleans at the close of my trip. “Corporations are extracting our resources and claiming it’s benefiting the American people. But it’s all about money and greed.”
As I reflect on our trip, what stands out is the blatant exploitation and harm inflicted on low-income predominantly communities of color by the fossil fuel industry.
I’m also in awe of the grace, tenacity and love of frontline community activists which powers their work to protect their communities and future generations. I am excited to partner with them and our Fossil Free Japan coalition to stop Japanese investment in these destructive projects.
“I live in St. John Baptist Parish with one of the highest rates of cancer,” said Jo Banner of the Descendants Project, an emerging organization committed to the intergenerational healing and flourishing of the Black descendant community in the Louisiana river parishes. “I am calling on financiers in Japan to stop financing devastation for our past, present and future. We don’t want to die. We need you to stop.”
Thanks to the incredible and kind organizers at Texas Campaign for the Environment, Better Brazoria, Port Arthur Community Action Network, For a Better Bayou, The Vessel Project, The Descendants Project and Louisiana Bucket Brigade for generously sharing their time, knowledge and experiences with us. Special thanks to Jeffrey Jacoby, Katherine Hahn and Trevor Carroll for coordinating and accompanying us on this trip.