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Fossil Fuel Plants Belched Toxic Pollution as Hurricane Beryl Hit Gulf Coast

Medical experts urge the Biden administration to block construction of new fossil fuel plants in the path of hurricanes.

A flaring stack in Port Comfort can be seen from a nature boardwalk in Port Lavaca, Texas, on July 7, 2024.

The hurricane season is just getting started, but a powerful storm has already brought a round of toxic releases from a cluster of fossil fuel plants on the Gulf Coast. Multiple refineries and petrochemical plants reported losing power as Hurricane Beryl slammed into Texas as a Category 1 storm on Tuesday. Those outages force operators to “flare,” or burn off, excess gases, which can release cancer-causing benzene and other toxic pollutants directly into the atmosphere.

Freeport LNG, a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in Southeast Texas, previously suffered a massive explosion in 2022. On Tuesday, the terminal reported flaring during power outages caused by Beryl to state regulators. So did the Formosa Plastics Corporation, which is notorious for agreeing to a $50 million settlement in 2019 after dumping millions of plastic pellets into Texas waterways. Marathon Petroleum reported a “safe combustion of excess gases” at its refinery in Texas City, but the company did not disclose the volume or duration of the flaring.

Toxic flaring at fossil fuel plants is unfortunately common across the heavily industrialized region even in good weather, but power outages and flooding brought by intensifying storms can unleash extreme levels of pollution into wetlands and residential areas.

Shaq Cossé, a program manager at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental justice group, analyzed reports submitted to state regulators on the flaring incidents in Texas.

Cossé said the latest flaring incidents in Texas should serve as a warning to federal regulators considering proposals to expand LNG export terminals in neighboring Louisiana, where an existing terminal in Cameron Parish is already disrupting local fisheries and sparking protests by residents. A separate terminal owned same company, Venture Global, is under construction in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans — a low-lying coastal area frequently hit by storms and hurricanes.

“Despite massive flood walls, facilities can become isolated by surrounding open water,” Cossé said in a statement. “Federal and state agencies failed to fully consider future sea level rise, land subsidence, and the stronger and more frequent hurricanes brought on by climate change when permitting these facilities.”

Medical experts also urged the Biden administration this week to reject plans to build more fossil fuel infrastructure in the potential path of hurricanes. In an open letter to President Joe Biden and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm released on Tuesday, a coalition of 23 climate groups representing 67,000 doctors, nurses, and other health professionals urged the Energy Department to consider public health as regulators consider proposals to build more LNG export terminals.

“Bottom line here is that there is no point in the use of [LNG] as it is causing human harms,” said Mark Vossler, president-elect of Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a call with reporters. “So, our obligation is to be scaling back, and our request, which is completely reasonable, is that the Department of Energy consider these human health impacts along the entire product life cycle when they are looking at new facilities.”

Gas from the nation’s vast fracking fields is piped to Freeport LNG and other export terminals along the coast of Texas and Louisiana, where the gas is liquified at extremely low temperatures before being shipped overseas on huge barges. Communities across the Gulf Coast have been devastated by strong storms in recent years, but the industry is rushing to build more LNG terminals to feed global demand for natural gas, particularly in Asia.

Venture Global recently received a crucial permit for CP2, a controversial LNG terminal proposed to be built next to the company’s existing terminal in Cameron Parish, which has already racked up more than 100 air permit violations in two years of operation. In Plaquemines Parish, Venture Global is building a 26-foot sea wall to shield the LNG terminal currently under construction from powerful storm surges.

“When Hurricane Ida hit [in 2021], it flooded the site of the Plaquemines LNG plant and nearby areas, disrupted over 94 percent of the nation’s oil refining and gas production, and caused irreparable damage to a Phillips 66 refinery in Plaquemines Parish,” Cossé said.

However, Venture Global is still waiting on the Energy Department to permit international gas exports before breaking ground on CP2. Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced a “pause” on gas export permits while regulators update the process for determining whether the new exports are in the public interest. A federal judge in Louisiana recently stayed the so-called “pause” on export approvals, but environmentalists say the Biden administration still has time to update its public interest criteria and ultimately decide the fate of any new terminals on the Gulf Coast.

In the letter to Biden and Granholm, the medical experts said regulators should make the public interest determination based on the entire life cycle of fossil gas, which leaks climate-warming methane into the atmosphere on every leg of its journey.

“Methane gas extracted domestically that becomes LNG for export is deleterious to public health through every stage of its life cycle; from drilling and fracking, to processing, transportation, refining, and liquefaction to combustion and other end-uses such as the manufacturing of plastics and petrochemicals,” the letter states, adding that such harms disproportionately fall on lower-income people and communities of color.

Roishetta Ozane, an environmental justice activist and founder of Vessel Project of Louisiana, knows all about the way fossil fuel pollution impacts communities. Ozane is raising children in Lake Charles, Louisiana, near the border with Texas, where she says a cluster of petrochemical facilities routinely leaves the air smelling like chlorine or rotten eggs. Last week an explosion at one facility forced residents to shelter in place days before Beryl made landfall and caused flooding across the region.

“For a long time — Black communities, low-income communities, Indigenous communities — we’ve been deemed sacrifices for the almighty oil and gas companies, for the almighty dollar,” Ozane told reporters on Tuesday. “And enough is enough.”

Ozane said communities can’t rely on state regulators who are supposed to keep them safe from industrial pollution even when a storm isn’t raging up the Gulf Coast. Ozane pointed to Satartia, Mississippi, where a CO2 pipeline used by the oil and gas industry exploded in 2020 and released gas that poisoned residents of the small town, and also referenced the Freeport LNG explosion in 2022.

“But those are just the things we hear about in the news,” Ozane said. “A lot of times, the things that happened don’t make the national news.”

Instead of permitting new pipelines and export terminals, Ozane said the government should require the industry to fix and clean up its existing infrastructure.

“We need the Biden administration to really act on this public interest determination [for LNG exports],” Ozane said. “What more do we need to say? I am here as mom in my community fighting for my children.”

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