US LNG: the dark side of the boom & the Italian connections

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Louisiana is one of the States where the fossil fuels industry has historically been most active, but it is also one of the territories most afflicted by the climate crisis. The intensity of hurricanes has increased exponentially. We all remember the tragedy caused by Katrina (1,800 casualties and $125 billion in damage), but recent phenomena such as Laura (2020) and Ida (2021) have registered similar intensity and left death and destruction behind them.

Now the latest frontier in the fossil business is called liquefied natural gas (LNG), i.e. storing in liquid form the gas extracted, mostly by hydraulic fracturing, from the various fields in the area and the rest of the United States, and then shipping it via huge cargoes around the world.

In Louisiana, there are no less than three of the seven LNG terminals currently operating, two more are under construction, five have been approved, and five more await the green light. Nationwide, should the proposed facilities see the light of day, there could be 26 LNG terminals across the US within a five-year period.

LNG Terminal Calcasieu Pass – photo © Carlo Dojmi di Delupis/ReCommon

Compared to the second half of 2021, LNG exports increased by 12 per cent in the first half of 2022, so much so that the US overtook the Russian Federation and Qatar to become the world’s leading exporter. Italy ranks 13th globally for gas imports from the US in the period between February 2016 and September 2022.

In the area around the town of Lake Charles there are the Cameron LNG and Calcasieu Pass terminals, but also an impressive concentration of petrochemical facilities that puff smoke and flare up non-stop. In some places the eye encounters only pipes and tanks, in what appears to be one of the largest sacrifice zones in the country. «The communities that live near the plants are mainly historic black communities, often very poor and still struggling with the effects of the hurricanes», explains Roishetta Ozane of Healthy Gulf, an NGO for which she serves as community organiser. As she shows us the houses with the blue sheets, which here indicate precisely the houses damaged by the extreme storms, Roishetta makes it clear that one of her main activities is to explain to people what climate change is and why this territory is among the most affected by its effects.

These phenomena only exacerbate a social crisis that seems endless in Louisiana. 14 per cent of families in the state live below the poverty line. The average wage per household is 52 thousand dollars, compared to a nationwide figure of around 70 thousand. Unemployment hits hard, with peaks over 40 per cent, especially among the historic black communities.

LNG tanker, Calcasieu Pass – photo © Carlo Dojmi di Delupis/ReCommon

LNG terminals contribute few jobs, as John Allaire confirms. He is someone who knows the oil&gas companies well, as he was an employee of the British company BP for more than 30 years. But now he has an environmental consulting company and is well aware that the fossil business is no longer sustainable in the longterm. John lives in a huge caravan a stone’s throw from the Ocean in one of the most valuable wetlands on the North American continent, populated by pelicans, cormorants, ducks and storks. Here, however, the Calcasieu LNG terminal has been in operation for only a few months and work on two more facilities is due to start soon. «They will dry up numerous ponds and make a stretch of beach disappear, as if the hurricanes were not enough to take chunks of coastline away», complains John. Meanwhile in Calcasieu it is a bustle of gas cargoes, giants of the sea that in the few months of the terminal’s life have arrived six times in Italian waters, further proof that American LNG is increasingly important for our country.   Moving eastwards, a three-hour drive from Lake Charles, one feels the effects of the climate emergency caused also by the extensive use of gas. Here it is all a tangle of bayous, the swampy channels of the immense Mississippi Delta that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, and there is an island, that of Jean Charles, that is literally disappearing. It is the fault of other channels, the artificial ones dug by oil&gas companies to extract hydrocarbons, which have allowed salt water and storm surges to penetrate deep into the wetlands, accelerating erosion processes. Compared to 1955, 98% of the island has been lost. The 200 or so inhabitants, mostly Indigenous, forced to come to Jean Charles by an 1830 law, have been relocated 40 kilometres away and are in fact the first US environmental refugees in history.

John Beard, Port Arthur Community Action Network – photo © Carlo Dojmi di Delupis/ReCommon, 8th december 2022

«We are in the belly of the beast». This is how John Beard, activist, politician and founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, defines Port Arthur, the iconic city of the Texan fossil fuels industry. And he is not wrong. Petrochemicals, two refineries divided only by a strip of road – something we had never seen in our wanderings around the globe – and other heavy industries, all concentrated in a few square kilometres. “Icing on the cake”, Port Arthur is halfway between the two largest and most productive liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in the United States: Sabine Pass and Freeport, by 2021 some 35 billion and 19 billion cubic metres of LNG exports respectively.

On the other hand, Texas has based much of its development on the fossil fuels industry, on which it still depends heavily. In 2021, it was the largest producer of oil (43%) and natural gas (25%) in the US, mostly from the Gulf of Mexico and the Permian Basin, where a quarter of the country’ hydrocarbon reserves are located.

Yet in Port Arthur «there is so much poverty, people leave or risk getting sick that the incidence of cancer cases here is twice the Texas average», Beard laments.

The constant presence of flaring from the three enormous towers of Sabine Pass would seem to give a sad meaning to the activist’s words. The terminal is a sort of city within a city, so mammoth is it. It is run by Cheniere Energy, a company that exports more than 50% of US LNG and with which Snam, Italian corporation, is firmly in business.

The terminal at Freeport, an hour’s drive from both Port Arthur and Houston, slightly inferior to Sabine Pass in terms of production volumes, has seen its “beneficiaries” rapidly change with the war in Ukraine. Whereas 70% of the gas used to go to Asia, now up to 65% goes to Europe.

We are actually talking about the cargoes shipped until last 8 June, when a huge explosion caused by human error brought the plant to a complete standstill. «Some people who were in the nearby beaches were injured, while we know nothing about who was on duty in the plant. What is certain is that there were so many safety problems that the authorities had already imposed fines against the operators of Freeport LNG», says Melanie Oldham of the local group Citizens for Clean Air & Clean Water. Then, as Oldham adds, you have to deal with extreme weather events, which are not lacking here either. In short, Freeport is something of a ticking time bomb and for the time being there is no question of reopening. In terms of gas exports, we are talking about a 20% drop in US exports. A considerable damage, estimated at between 6 and 8 billion dollars, especially for those who sell gas. The day after the Freeport stop, in fact, the price of gas for US citizens fell by 12%. This shows how the fossil fuels market is totally out of control and conditioned by speculative logic and the interests of the few.

Sabine Pass flaring, photo © Carlo Dojmi di Delupis/ReCommon, 8th december 2022

In the past, Sabine Pass also had to be stopped, but because of the damage caused by hurricanes, which even in this part of the coast overlooking the Gulf of Mexico are increasingly causing tremendous devastation. The paradox then jumps to the eye that the same activities that are causing the climate crisis are being challenged by extreme phenomena whose frequency is increasing exponentially. A fact that the banks and financial institutions that support these projects and the companies that promote them should think about. Like Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s most important largest commercial and investment bank. From 2016 to 2021, Intesa Sanpaolo has financed with $1.8 billion all those companies that operate existing LNG terminals on the Gulf Coast and are planning their expansion. About half, $882 million, went to Cheniere Energy alone, while $411 million went to Freeport LNG. Forty per cent of the funding is concentrated in the 2020-2021 biennium, the same biennium in which the export capacity of US LNG terminals is doubled. Therefore, Oldham asks «banks like Intesa Sanpaolo to come and see what gas exploitation means in my territory, because with their financing they are signing our death sentence».

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