Both Republicans and Democrats in deep red Louisiana have warmed to the idea of carbon sequestration, a practice that involves capturing carbon dioxide from large industrial operations and storing it miles underground. Federal tax incentives promise to make the burgeoning industry profitable at a time when businesses are looking to reduce their carbon emissions. There is one big problem: the Environmental Protection Agency has been slow to issue permits for underground wells where the trapped carbon is supposed to be stored.
So when the agency announced in the waning days of 2023 that it was handing over permitting duties, known as “primacy,” to Louisiana regulators, elected officials and industry executives celebrated. Jeff Landry, Republican governor-elect, who said before that carbon reduction policies are “extremely destructive to the economy,” called the decision a “significant milestone in our state’s economic development.”
Even the local branch of Big Oil’s lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute, saw the move as a boon for growth and sustainability. “Today’s decision will empower the state to continue to be a leader in energy production, community engagement and environmental progress while boosting the local economy,” Gifford Briggs, API’s Gulf Coast Regional Director, said. allegedly told local news outlets.
Environmentalists and many local residents are not so enthusiastic. Although it holds the promise of reducing climate-warming emissions from highly polluting facilities, carbon removal is a burgeoning industry that some scientists warn could pose serious health risks to nearby communities. When a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide burst into Mississippi in February 2020, dozens of people were hospitalized after experiencing shortness of breath and passing out. Some residents were initially unable to drive their cars to the hospital because the high levels of carbon dioxide in the air prevented their engines from starting.
And since the gas will be captured from industrial facilities, its transfer and storage will take place disproportionately in places already overloaded with air pollution. In Louisiana, the country’s third poorest state, those communities are predominantly Black and low-income. Advocates worry that a state with a legacy of lax oversight of oil and gas companies is in the wrong place to streamline permitting for more planned carbon removal projects than anywhere else in the country.
The carbon removal industry “just doesn’t last that long,” said James Yskamp, a senior attorney at the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice. “So we just think it’s a little bit of a mistake to prioritize a state that has such a large planned build-out.”
The pits that will store carbon dioxide are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which requires businesses to prevent liquids and waste they store underground from contaminating public water supplies. While the EPA is the default authority for issuing company permits to operate these injection wells, the agency may choose to delegate the responsibility to states that have demonstrated that they have implemented a permitting program of their own. To date, federal regulators have handed what’s known as “primacy” to just two other states — North Dakota and Wyoming — and Earthjustice say that neither state has any operational wells that store carbon dioxide.
Louisiana applied for consent powers in September 2021, but it wasn’t until this past June that the EPA held a hearing on it. Even though the vast majority of the 45,000 comments submitted to the agency during the public comment period opposed the state’s bid, EPA Administrator Michael Reagan signed over the admission duties to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources on December 28. This is a decision with far-reaching implications for the carbon removal industry. Louisiana has more applications for carbon dioxide injection wells than any other state, with 22 of the 61 proposals pending with federal regulators. And since state officials have promised to speed up the permitting process for these wells, the Pelican State could become an important testing ground for the new technology.
Regan said that provisions in his agreement with Louisiana will guarantee that the consent is done correctly. “We’re building in monitoring and oversight measures to ensure that the state — regardless of who’s in the governor’s office — is in compliance” with federal law, Regan told the Associated Press at the end of December.
Environmental advocates are not so confident. In a 60-page letter submitted to the EPA in June, Earthjustice outlined a series of problems with Louisiana’s permit proposal, arguing that state regulators lack the expertise needed to approve and regulate carbon dioxide wells. The organization pointed to the EPA’s own research indicating that these pits are more sophisticated than other types of underground storage systems, as they create high-pressure conditions with the ability to crack underground rocks and cause dangerous leaks. Modeling exercises are needed to understand the magnitude of these risks, but Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources has “no experience” conducting this type of study, according to Jane Patton, a New Orleans-based campaign manager for the Center for International Environmental Law.
In its letter, Earthjustice wrote that the state of Louisiana’s permit program relieves businesses of responsibility for their well sites after 50 years, a provision the organization says is in violation of federal regulations. A lack of scientific research on the long-term impacts and effectiveness of carbon storage makes this half-century benchmark arbitrary, they argued.
“Carbon removal has not been proven to effectively and efficiently capture the carbon emissions, and it has not been proven to permanently store the amount of carbon we intend to store safely here,” said Yskamp, the Earthjustice attorney. He argues that fossil fuel companies launch most of the state’s carbon removal projects as a way to “green” their pollution.
Louisiana officials say the carbon removal industry will be a boon to the economy. The state’s economic development agency projected in its latest annual report that the industry will create more than 2,300 new jobs in the state over the next year. But there are questions about how long those jobs will last. Patton told the Louisiana Illuminator, a nonprofit news outlet, that the bulk of these jobs are temporary construction jobs that won’t benefit state residents in the long run.
Advocates also worry that carbon dioxide sinks will pose public health risks in places where air pollution is already a problem. The Earthjustice letter pointed to numerous projects that would be built right next to predominantly black neighborhoods, including Air Products’ proposed ammonium plant in Ascension Parish. The parish sits along the lower Mississippi River in the state’s main industrial corridor, a region known as “Cancer Alley” for the concentration of petrochemical plants there.
Regan offered assurances that people living near well sites would be protected, pointing to measures in the EPA’s agreement with Louisiana designed to protect vulnerable communities from the dangers associated with carbon storage. The concern is that the state will not comply with these provisions, given its history of cozying up to the oil and gas industry, and Landry’s recent lawsuit against the federal government for trying to enforce civil rights legislation in the state’s most polluted areas .
“Communities across Louisiana depend on these provisions to protect them from decades of environmental policies that put these very communities at risk of disease, pollution and death,” wrote Bevery Wright, the founder and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. . in a statement. “Louisiana’s most vulnerable cannot be exposed to an untested pollution control technology without accountability.”
Editor’s note: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers play no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.