Plant expansions fueled by shale gas boom to boost greenhouse gas, toxic air emissions



Fueled by the natural gas boom, companies are proposing new petrochemical facilities at an increasing clip, adding to greenhouse gas and toxic air emissions in already-polluted places like Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana.

Eleanor Bell/Center for Public Integrity

WESTLAKE, La. — Stacey Ryan already knows where he’ll be buried. 

It will be in Perkins Cemetery, the same place his mother and father were laid to rest after dying from cancer. It’s where his aunts, uncles, grandfather and great-grandfather are interred, having been felled by various malignancies, diabetes, and ailments of the heart, respiratory system and pancreas.  Most of Ryan’s family is there, along with almost everyone else who ever died in Mossville, an unincorporated area founded by freed slaves.

Soon, the cemetery may be all that is left.

Sasol North America, the domestic division of a South Africa-based energy and chemical company, has begun offering voluntary buyouts to many of the 300 or so remaining inhabitants of Mossville. Some properties may be expropriated come February. By 2018, the land Ryan and other holdouts have fought to keep will be consumed by an $8.1 billion ethane cracker and a multibillion-dollar gas-to-liquids facility, a massive addition to a plant Sasol already operates nearby.  

The state of Louisiana says it will allow the facility to release up to 10.6 million tons of greenhouse gases and 3,275 tons of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a carcinogen, into the atmosphere each year. This is on top of the 963 tons of pollutants that were discharged into the air by Sasol and other companies within the 70669 ZIP code last year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“With the plans they have,” Ryan said, “Mossville just sits in the way.” 

The Sasol project is among at least 120 of its type planned around the United States, according to data compiled and analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy organization. Motivated by an abundance of cheap natural gas unleashed by hydraulic fracturing – fracking — companies like ExxonMobil and Shell want to build or add on to petrochemical plants, oil refineries and fertilizer plants in places like Mont Belvieu, Texas, and Monaca, Pennsylvania.  They have asked state regulators for permission to release a collective 130 million tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent, a measure of the global-warming potential of certain emissions.

From a climate perspective, that’s comparable to 28 coal-fired power plants, according to the EIP data, which were independently verified by the Center for Public Integrity. 

Louisiana and Texas account for most of these projects — 34 and 50, respectively. In those states alone, 68 projects have been given final approval to emit up to 65.5 million tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent. Sixteen more, which would add nearly 31 million tons to this total, have received draft permits or have applications pending.

Failing to address these emissions essentially gives the petrochemical industry a free pass at a time when the Obama administration is cracking down on coal, said Eric Schaeffer, EIP’s executive director and the former head of civil enforcement for the EPA.

“People talk about natural gas as being better for the climate, but hydraulic fracturing has also sparked this huge industrial boom that creates a lot of greenhouse gas emissions,” Schaeffer said.   “We’re not paying attention to emissions from these other sources, and we need to for an honest accounting of fracking’s greenhouse gas footprint.”

Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the White House has focused on power plants and the transportation sector, which make up the majority of the nation’s greenhouse gas inventory.

In a telephone interview, McCabe said “it’s really important that we focus on the highest priority categories and the categories that have the largest emissions, and that has been the theme of this administration and that’s the theme that’s in the climate action plan. …You want to focus there, but of course you want to keep track of where the entire domestic inventory is trending over time.”

In a written statement, Sasol said its Louisiana project will yield a projected 1,200 permanent jobs and another 5,000 or so during construction. 

“This project is important to a region that has not enjoyed significant economic development for an extended period of time,” company spokesman Russell Johnson wrote.  “As a result, economic opportunities exist for all of the citizens of the area that did not exist prior to the projects.”

The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade group, said the “new factories and expansions [around the country] will create hundreds of thousands of well-paying new jobs, strengthen communities, and put money in the pockets of American families.” Another trade group, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, declined to comment.

Asked about the increased emissions anticipated with the Sasol project, a state official said that all companies seeking to expand must follow the law.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re holding them to all federal and state standards that exist,” said Bryan Johnston, a senior environmental scientist in the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s air permits division.  “They’re not getting a free pass at all.”

‘Only place…I feel safe’

Mossville is hard to find on a map, but that doesn’t make it any less real to the people who grew up there.

Founded in 1790 by Jim Moss, a freed slave, the community has no formal government and no elementary school (it was sold to Sasol in 2013 for $9.5 million). It’s enveloped by Westlake, an industrial haven just west of Lake Charles.

“This is the only place I’ve lived where I feel safe,” said Dorothy Felix, 75, whose roots in Mossville go back several generations.  “We used to sleep with our windows up and leave our doors open because if the neighbors wanted to come by and come in, they could walk in the house. That’s the kind of life we lived.”

In 1945, Felix’s family lived about a mile up the road from her current home, she said, and closer still to where PPG Industries wanted to use an old magnesium plant to make chlorine and other chemicals. The company bought out all of the families who lived nearby.  Some relocated within Mossville; others moved away.

Since then, industrial facilities have multiplied.  Mossville is encircled by 14 of them, and more are coming. Seven companies have received final approval to build three chemical plants, three natural gas plants and one refinery in Calcasieu Parish since 2013, according to EIP data.

“In Westlake, they accept and support the industry because it gives them jobs,” said Wilma Subra, an environmental consultant who has been advising Mossville residents. Mossville receives not jobs but pollution that has caused “huge health impacts,” Subra said. High levels of cancer-causing dioxins – industrial byproducts deposited in fish and homegrown fruits and vegetables – were found in blood samples taken from 28 residents by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in 1998. Subra contributed to a 2007 study that tied the dioxins to nearby plants like PPG.  “Yet we still couldn’t get the agencies to get the facilities to reduce their dioxin emissions,” she said.

At the final public hearing on the Sasol project, held March 25 at Westlake City Hall, residents’ anger boiled over.

“How many more communities are going to be taken from the people and destroyed?” Lois Booker Malvo of Lake Charles asked at the packed session. “There is no compassion, no respect or concern of a better life for the people… Industry, please …come back with better ways to make sure you stop destroying what God has created.”

‘Jacking up the baseline’

The uptick in greenhouse gases that can be expected if Sasol and the 100-plus other expansion projects  come to fruition would seem to run counter to the White House’s pledge  to slash  carbon emissions in the United States. 

“The President made it very clear from the beginning of his Administration that cutting carbon pollution is a top priority and that natural gas is a bridge fuel that will help us achieve this goal,” the White House said in a written statement to the Center. “In that vein, the President set a goal of reducing U.S [greenhouse gas] emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 - a goal we are on track to meet. In fact, we are about halfway there already.”

Compared to the 6 billion tons of pollution the White House expects to save from increased fuel efficiency and other climate initiatives, as well as the  recently announced emissions deal with China, 130 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) may seem like a drop in the bucket. 

Still, EIP’s Schaeffer said, “People need to understand, when we are looking long term, we are bringing in new industries that are jacking up the baseline.” 

Liquefied natural gas export facilities could wind up being one of the biggest CO2e sources, according to EIP data. The three projects that have received final permits from regulators in Florida, Maryland and Louisiana have the potential to emit up to 7.5 million tons per year. Another seven proposed projects could add another 25.9 million tons annually, though it’s unlikely all will be built.

Chemical and natural gas processing plants account for the biggest number of  final permits (68) and draft permits or applications (12) documented by EIP.

“There’s going to be more production in the U.S., which is great news from a jobs perspective, but not from an emissions perspective,” said Doug Vine, a senior energy fellow at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a think tank. If the emissions do rise, he said, “We’re going to have to offset that.”

The EPA’s McCabe said that new plants are now required to use pollution-control   “technologies that will be as efficient as possible in limiting the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted.”

“As the technology evolves, the permit reviews will track with that and over time, plants will get more and more efficient,” she said.

In its statement, the American Chemistry Council said, “The new U.S. chemical industry production will be advanced, state-of-the-art, and energy-efficient. Since we are drawing market share from areas of the world where production may be more greenhouse-gas-intensive… our expansion in the U.S. may result in lower net global GHG emissions.” 

Billions in investment

Sasol’s planned expansion in Westlake is the cornerstone of the company’s North American strategy. 

“The abundance of affordable domestic natural gas played a key role in our decision to expand our operations in Louisiana,” company spokesman Johnson wrote.  “We chose Louisiana — and Westlake specifically — because of its positive business climate, robust energy infrastructure and skilled workforce and proximity to our existing facilities.”

The 650-acre expansion project includes an ethane cracker and derivatives unit, set to come online in 2018, which will turn natural gas components from fields such as the Haynesville Shale in northwestern Louisiana and northeastern Texas into ethylene, used to make plastics and other products.  Sasol also wants to build the first gas-to-liquids (GTL) facility in the United States, which would  transform natural gas into diesel fuel and products such as paraffin and liquefied petroleum gas.  Sasol already operates GTL facilities in South Africa and Qatar and is in the final stages of a project in Uzbekistan. 

All told, Sasol said it plans to invest billions to quadruple its operations in southwest Louisiana over the next six years. 

For the state, that investment didn’t come cheap. 

The Louisiana Economic Development office said that Sasol received a state incentive package that included $115 million to buy land and develop the site, as well as a payroll incentive for the GTL project, which provides a rebate of up to 15 percent for each job over the first 10 years of operations. Sasol was given a separate payroll and tax incentive package for the ethane cracker portion of the project, and Louisiana is investing $20 million in SOWELA Technical Community College to help train the sorts of workers Sasol needs. 

The project also qualified for Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption, which absolves the industry of property taxes for 10 years on capital investments. The facility is projected to create 1,200 direct jobs, according to the LED. 

“Despite a national economic downturn, this historic economic development win is happening in Louisiana because we have been laser focused on job creation by creating an environment where businesses want to invest and create jobs for our people," Governor Bobby Jindal said at a December 2012 event announcing the project. 

However, because of the hefty incentives, the state’s chief economist, Greg Albrecht, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “in my analysis (the Sasol project) would not be a break-even or a gain for the state.”

The costs are too steep, said Monique Harden, a lawyer and co-founder of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm in New Orleans.

“Sasol is getting all of this welfare from people who can ill afford it in the state of Louisiana and will be bringing more pollution, more hazards and more risks,” she said. “There’s no way you can offset what we’re giving them and what we’re giving up for them, with what they’re bringing in. But that’s never been part of the calculation in Louisiana.” 

Jim Cox, who represented the Lake Charles area in the state senate from 1991 to 2000, said industry almost always gets its way in Louisiana.

“This state is ruled by oil and gas,” he said.

Cox served on the Revenue & Fiscal Affairs Committee and Labor & Industrial Relations Committee during his time in the legislature.  He was an anomaly, he said — a politician who advocated standing up against the oil and gas companies.

“They claimed I was going to drive jobs out of the community,” Cox said. “That’s the influence of the money on the politicians. They heavily finance the campaigns and wine and dine the politicians and they basically own the state of Louisiana.”

Cox acknowledged that industry has brought jobs to southwest Louisiana.

“And to a lot of people, that employment is everything,” he said. “But not at the cost of your own health and safety and the welfare and the health and safety of your children.”

Sasol, for its part, insists it wants to be a good neighbor. It established operations in Westlake in 2001, after buying a chemical complex from Condea Vista, which had polluted the groundwater beneath Mossville and agreed to buy 206 homes for $13.88 million to settle a class-action lawsuit.  As Sasol’s expansion has moved forward, the company has offered a voluntary buyout program to Mossville residents and held regular meetings with them.  Sasol is also offering scholarships to students seeking careers in the chemical industry and says it will underwrite an oral history project in conjunction with the Imperial Calcasieu Museum to preserve people’s stories.

“Sasol is proud not only of what we are doing, but how we are doing it,” spokesman Johnson said. “We are continually engaging in dialogue with our neighbors, listening to their concerns and responding.”

The company approached regional EPA Administrator Ron Curry to discuss environmental justice issues in Mossville, Curry said at the Louisiana Chemical Association’s annual legislative conference in May. 

 “They think about the environment they are going to live in and the environment they’re going to raise their children in” he said. “When we have that sort of robust conversation that was initiated by the company, I think it’s a lesson and it’s a model for all of us…”

‘It’s not worth it’

Not everyone is sold.

At the March 25 hearing, more than 100 people crowded into the Westlake City Council chambers, waiting their turn to speak. Inside, the moderator reminded attendees to keep the center aisle clear for safety reasons. Resident after resident stepped up to the microphone to plead that the project be reconsidered.

“Everybody wants the $20 billion to come to this area and you can't say you don't,” said Delmar Bennett of Sulphur, Louisiana. “But when the $20 billion comes to this area, you want to make sure that you can at least be comfortable with the air that you breathe, and the water that you drink.”

“Your 1,200 jobs are not worth our children, grandchildren, future children,” said Dawn Kelly of Lake Charles. “Diseases that have no cures. Cancers that have no cures.  It's not worth it.”

It was an unexpectedly large turnout, said Michael Tritico, an environmental activist based in Longville, Louisiana, north of Lake Charles.

“That was gratifying,” he said. “There I was sitting there, thinking, ‘My goodness, this room is filled and overfilled and at the last hearing, they had me and that was it.’”

Still, Tritico is a realist. On a daylong boat trip down the Calcasieu River last June, the 71-year-old biologist spoke of the futility of being an environmentalist in an industry-loving state.

“I think what we do is symbolic,” Tritico said as the boat entered Clooney Island Loop, a bend in the river and site of a vast spill of ethylene dichloride, a chemical linked to kidney, liver and heart disease, from Condea Vista and ConocoPhillips in the 1990s. “We have done our absolute best and it’s made no difference.”

Tritico is old enough to have belonged to the Calcasieu Rod and Gun Club, a long-defunct group of hunters and fishermen who objected to the industrial pollution that began to appear in the 1930s. “They stood up and said, ‘You can’t do this. You’re ruining what we live for.’ They were told to shut up: ‘We need the jobs. You’re in the way of progress.’”

Tritico is still railing, knowing that people like him are branded “radicals, crazies, whatever.” In his written comments on the Sasol permit, he questioned the “no significant impacts” finding by the LDEQ. “If a project with unprecedented amounts of air and water emissions is declared to be so benign,” he wrote, “what is the point of having any regulatory framework?”

Mike Thomas, Sasol’s vice president of U.S. operations, reminded the audience at the March hearing that “more than 400 Sasol employees and their families— including me and my family — call Southwest Louisiana home and have a personal vested interest in the environmental conditions and quality of living in our area.”

In its statement to the Center, Sasol said that its permits “underwent the most rigorous review possible” by the LDEQ and the EPA. The two agencies, it said, had a “sharp focus on both greenhouse gases and on criteria pollutants, and were extremely thorough in their evaluations.”

The state’s Johnston said there were “certain things LDEQ has control over and things LDEQ doesn’t have control over. Site location, the Sasol buyout program, the willingness of Mossville residents to move — that’s not under the purview or regulation of LDEQ.” 

McCabe said she wasn’t familiar with the Mossville buyouts, but that in general, the EPA works with states to issue air  permits that meet federal guidelines.

“The reason why activities like this go through the air permitting process is to establish that emissions from a plant are not going to create a health threat in the community,” she said. “There are areas in this country where there are concentrations of industrial activities and that’s one reason why those permitting processes are so important.”

The core problem, lawyer Harden said, is that the permits aren’t crafted with neighbors’ well-being in mind. She pointed to the historically African-American communities of Morrisonville and Reveilletown, which have been lost to industrial expansion in Louisiana. She also pointed to Bayou Corne, portions of which have been swallowed by a sinkhole caused by a salt dome that collapsed while being mined by a Texas company.

“There’s an inherent danger in our permitting process for communities like Mossville and so many others,” Harden said. “That’s the reason why these facilities go to places like Mossville. It’s because the permits don’t protect people. So you go to places where people socially, economically, and politically are also without protection.” 

She urged regulators to consider federal and state environmental laws in harmony with international human rights treaties with which the U.S. has agreed to abide. Until that happens, she said, “It’s sort of like an outlaw situation — with the permit, I can do whatever I want and your needs and your rights have no moment.”

‘A place to lay my head’

Stacey Ryan worked for six years as a plant operator at Condea Vista and LyondellBasell before illness forced him to retire. In 2011, he moved his Hurricane Rita-era FEMA trailer to a small plot of land his family still owned near the entrance to the Sasol plant.  Adjacent land had been sold to Sasol in 2001, along with the shotgun house he grew up in. Utilities won’t service his trailer — the result of a long-running dispute with city officials, who rezoned his property “heavy industrial” — so Ryan powers it with solar panels and batteries when he can. He sleeps in his truck when he can’t.

“Right now, I’m just trying to maintain a place to lay my head,” Ryan said. 

In November, the Port of Lake Charles said it would allow Sasol to expropriate 24 parcels of land the company had been unable to acquire through negotiations or whose owners or heirs could not be located.  Ryan’s property is among those parcels.

Residents have until late January to come to an agreement with Sasol. After that, the Port of Lake Charles will take over negotiations, said the port’s general counsel, Michael Dees. It will offer residents the highest of two appraisals for their land; if the offer is refused, the port will take the landowner to court.

Sasol said it has made “good faith efforts to purchase the properties” and that it was “willing to continue negotiations with property owners to avoid expropriation.”

For now, Ryan, who rejected a $40,000 offer from a local real estate agent for his property, is staying put.

His health continues to deteriorate. A chronic diabetic with severe kidney damage who lives on Social Security, he began losing his sight in November. No man in his family has lived beyond 52, he said. He’s 46.

 “I was born here and raised here,” Ryan said, “but they won’t let me die in peace here.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to more clearly describe Sasol's land acquisition plans.

Jim Morris contributed to this story.

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