How do you become a climate activist? For James Hiatt (39), it all started with a bucket. In 2020, he was bailing out water from his living room as Hurricane Delta swept past. Six weeks before, Hurricane Laura had driven a tree through the roof of his house. There hadn’t even been time to repair it, just to cover the hole with plastic. James: ‘Since I was born until 2005, I knew at most one storm by name, now I can recall 13 of them: Katrina, Rita, Laura, Delta… These weather disasters change your life. And, unfortunately, more and more people worldwide are experiencing that.’
‘My corner of the globe is being sacrificed,’ James says of his surroundings. He lives in the small town of Lake Charles in the state of Louisiana, and as an activist he works a lot in the village of Cameron Parish, a few dozen kilometres south. The whole of southern Louisiana is filled with factories, mostly for the fossil fuel industry. The area north of New Orleans is even called ‘Cancer Alley’ because the air breathed by its (mostly black) inhabitants contains the highest concentration of carcinogens in the entire US.
This area is seeing frenzied construction by the LNG industry, something that leads to pollution in the immediate vicinity of the terminals. Moreover, the new LNG terminals are being built on Louisiana’s swamps; areas that have served as a gigantic sponge, protecting the state’s coastline from rain and sea water for centuries. The entire region on the Gulf of Mexico is extremely sensitive to rising sea levels. And more gas means more CO2 and methane in the air and thus more heating, which for Cameron Parish means even more coastal erosion and even more hurricanes. As such, the industrial activities taking place in their own backyard exacerbates the problems that threaten the very survival of this area.
This is nothing less than bizarre, says James. As a lab technician at a fossil fuel energy company, he felt increasingly like a cog in a destructive system. So he applied for a job at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an organisation that opposes the devastation caused by the fossil fuel industry in Louisiana. In Cameron Parish, the resistance is focused on two new terminals by Venture Global LNG, which has already obtained US$177 million in financing from ING Bank for that purpose since 2019. Terminal number one is called Calcasieu Pass and has been running since January; terminal number two, Plaquemines Parish, is still in the planning. ‘Fossil fuels have brought us a lot of good, but we need to do things differently now,’ says James.
LNG: Liquified Natural Gas
Since 2018, LNG terminals have been booming in the US. Eight are now in operation and there are plans for more than 20 more, mostly in the state of Louisiana. From these terminals, liquefied natural gas is transported to Asia. And also to Europe, where demand for LNG has risen sharply due to the war in Ukraine. This increases the likelihood that the planned terminals will actually be built.
What is it like living so close to an LNG terminal?
‘My friend John has the LNG terminal pretty much in his backyard. He always takes a photo when they are ‘flaring’: this is when they burn gas, releasing greenhouse gases. Flaring is an emergency measure that should only be used occasionally to reduce pressure, but John has been taking a picture almost every day since Calcasieu Pass has been running! That huge flame should be clear, but there is often very black smoke coming from it. That’s a sign of incomplete combustion; our children breathe in that toxic air.’
How do people around you feel about you working for an environmental organisation?
‘Primarily white, somewhat older shrimp fishermen with low incomes live in Cameron. To be honest, I often feel I have to walk on eggshells. People around here learn from Fox News that climate change is a hoax, although there is slowly more awareness that something is really wrong. Fossil fuel energy companies have a lot of influence here: in the media and in politics, they get all the space they need to show how well they are supposedly doing. They own the local media and sponsor schools and libraries. ‘We give back to the community,’ they then say, meanwhile earning billions in tax breaks. They promise jobs, but this is an exaggeration. The terminals planned here in this area will not even create 1,500 permanent jobs, yet they promise tens of thousands.
Of course we need jobs here, but not jobs that will destroy our own environment. Air quality is deteriorating and the terminals make the surrounding area even more vulnerable to flooding. If coastal erosion and sea-level rise continue at this rate, in a few years’ time workers at the terminals will have to go to work by boat. We could create jobs here by investing in offshore wind farms and solar fields. But that is not happening, we are just addicted to fossil fuels. ‘It really is a short-term vision. Not only because fossil fuel energy is bad for us in the slightly longer term, but also because our country has to be CO2 neutral by 2050. There will be no place for the LNG industry then, and everyone here will be out of work.’
As a project financier, ING Bank is contributing directly to the Calcasieu Pass terminal, with multiple instalments totalling US$777 million. The bank also very recently put more than $1 billion into a new terminal in Plaquemines Parish. These figures come from the IJGlobal database (accessed 21 July 2022), a company that maps infrastructure investments for commercial clients.
But hold on one moment. Didn’t ING stop financing fossil fuels in early 2022? Nope. ING is just no longer giving money to new oil and gas exploitation projects. To finance a pipeline or an LNG terminal (i.e. transport), you can still turn to ING for financial help. ING is thus still contributing enormously to climate damage, even though it sounds like they are doing a good job.
What else do you worry about?
‘We have prepared a report on Calcasieu Pass which shows that its owner Venture Global is flouting already pretty lax regulations and trying to downplay toxic emissions. Moreover, it looks very much like they have problems since they have to flare so often. Last month in Texas, there was a huge explosion at the Freeport LNG terminal. Fortunately, no one was injured, but these near misses are becoming far too common. The chance of a catastrophic fire increases with every new terminal that is built.
Calcasieu Pass was built at a record pace and we fear they have put speed before safety. I hold my breath for new hurricanes. What if one of the terminals is damaged and harmful substances are released? It is an absurd idea to put such billion-dollar projects on a vulnerable coast ravaged by hurricanes. Protective measures have been taken against sea water at the terminal, but as a result, when floods occur, the additional flood water reaches local residents.’
Do the terminals also affect wildlife in the area?
‘Calcasieu Pass alone covers over 4 square kilometres. Due to its construction, a large area of marshland has been lost, which is very important for migratory birds. These use the abundant food in the marsh to refuel after their long flight from Central and South America across the Gulf of Mexico. The flames from flaring disrupt their navigation system, they may be attracted to the light and even burn in the flames.
‘Moreover, a lot of fish species depend on wetlands like this because their hatchlings grow up there. As the sea keeps advancing, the marsh waters are getting saltier and some species can no longer survive there. Eventually, the land is simply swallowed up: every year in Louisiana, about 75 km2 of marsh disappears into the sea [about the same as a medium-sized city like Nottingham, ed.]. This has been going on for years: I have a childhood memories of everyone taking their Christmas tree to the beach after Christmas, to build a kind of barrier with it. But as long as we keep producing fossil fuels on a large scale, we are fighting a losing battle.’
What does the Louisiana Bucket Brigade want to achieve?
‘The state should force Venture Global to comply with emissions and safety rules at Calcasieu Pass. And, more importantly, there should be no permits given for planned new terminals. I understand that Europe needs an alternative to Russian gas now, but LNG is not the solution. We need to get rid of our addiction to fossil fuels. What we are doing here is collective suicide. For Venture Global’s second terminal in Cameron (CP2), fortunately, all the permits haven’t been issued. The procedure has been temporarily halted because the company could not provide the necessary information. Moreover, the financing is not yet in place, so financial institutions can play an important role in saying: we are not putting our money into this.
Therefore, it is important that a bank like ING starts to understand the consequences of its investment policy, and that its decisions affect what happens on our coast. And ultimately, of course, you in the Netherlands are just as vulnerable to sea level rise. The gas industry on our coast also affects the future of your coast. We depend on each other.’
Take action: Remind ING of their responsibility as a major bank to enable a fossil-free world. With just two clicks, send a letter to ING’s CEO Steven van Rijswijk asking him to stop expansion of the fossil fuel industry immediately. NB: the letter is in Dutch Send a letter