President Donald Trump made a visit to southwest Louisiana’s new Cameron LNG plant yesterday—the same day that the first of its three “trains” (production lines) became operational. There are plans for two more trains at the site, which is 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and 30 miles from Texas. The plant is owned by Sempra LNG, Mitsui & Co., Mitsubishi Corporation, Total, and NYK Line (Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha).
Chenier Energy already has an LNG plant at nearby Sabine Pass, which makes two-thirds of current U.S. production. Two more plants are under construction and another eight are planned in the immediate area.
The Cameron plant cost $10 billion and eventually will produce 1.7 billion cubic feet of liquified natural gas per day, solely for export. For comparison, China, which is doubling its tariff on US LNG in retaliation for Trump’s trade war, imports 9 billion cubic feet per day.
LNG is natural gas that has been purified and chilled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit, so it takes up 600 times less volume than natural gas, for storage and transport.
There are dark jokes made here, in the land of petrochemicals, about how when one of these facilities blows up they will hear the bang in Seattle, but LNG safety has been relatively good. The process has been viable on a large scale since WWI, and the first accident, in Cleveland in 1944, was the big one, with 130 dead over a square mile of devastation. (That explosion was blamed on inferior alloys in storage tanks, due to wartime rationing.)
Trump flew in to nearby Lake Charles. In The Beast, the armored limousine he referred to yesterday as “the world’s most expensive army tank,” he crossed a highway bridge to the town of Sulphur, where fans lined barricades to watch him pass. Louisiana went for Trump in 2016. One thing they seem to like about him is that he assumes the mantle of power personally, not just ceremonially. He has the juice left-over to make a show of it, and his public appearances guarantee drama.
The motorcade headed south to Hackberry, in Cameron Parish. Some in Lake Charles (Calcasieu Parish) describe the people of Cameron Parish—oil workers, cattle ranchers, and fishermen—as “rough.” The cashier in a Conoco station told me Trump took the highway instead of backroads because “it would be too easy to blow him up,” but she was a Trump supporter.
The Cameron LNG plant is terrifying in its shiny, complex determinacy. It looks like the Centre Pompidou on acid. Trump toured the facility with the CEO and state politicians but said nothing specific about the plant or about LNG in his speech, which was in his usual campaign-rally style: he mocked the press and Democratic opponents; referred to his election as “one of the highest-rated days in the history of television”; said the Green New Deal was “a hoax, like the hoax I just went through” (“They sort of like wind, even though it kills all the birds. You want to see a bird cemetery? Go under a windmill sometime.”); and he claimed, “We have the greatest economy in the history of our country.” He was more adept than usual at shifting between teleprompter and impromptu remarks.
“Few people have anything like this anywhere in the world,” Trump said, with a group of workers in coveralls and hardhats behind him. “And now, instead of relying on foreign oil, and foreign energy, we are now relying on American energy and American workers like never before.”
As many as 10,000 construction workers built the new plant, but most were from outside the two parishes. The plant is expected to employ only 300 permanently. Many in Lake Charles are ambivalent about what it and similar projects mean for the local economy, since the state has long been a model for maximizing corporate profits by subsidies and tax breaks.
The national average for state corporate subsidies, per capita, is $291. Louisiana’s are $2,857 per resident. For the last decade or more, Calcasieu and Cameron parishes have accounted for more than 50 percent of state tax breaks to corporations—funds that might have gone to local schools, libraries, infrastructure, and services. Louisiana industries and the Chamber of Commerce continue to push for even more pro-business legislation.
Trickle-down theory has not worked here, and the phrase “The Louisiana Paradox” is used to describe extremes of wealth and poverty in the state. US News recently ranked Louisiana dead-last in its “Best States” list, for the third year in a row of three, which is “what happens when you become a petro-colony,” a state activist said, sharing the report.
Trump said they were joined by “many of the great leaders from Louisiana, a state I love very much. And based on the votes”—closed-lip smile and head-tilt—“I should love it very much. I should. And I do love it. And I love the people of Louisiana, very special people.”
Trump said Sempra had tried to build a natural-gas import terminal “on this very spot,” but that previous politicians “pursued policies that were anti-American energy, and anti-American worker, and anti-America wealth,” but “now we have an America First energy policy just like we have an America First policy.” He said his administration had “ended the war on American energy.”
The Cameron plant, he said, had already sold 20 years of LNG. “Better build those additional monsters [trains],” he said. “Come on … what’s taking so long?”
He stumbled a bit on his description of his own EPA’s “job-killing Clean Power Plan,” which he said “would actually make the environment less clean,” by taking what Cameron LNG did and sending the process and jobs abroad. By saying this, he seemed accidentally to admit Cameron LNG was dirty. “So instead of doing this,” he said, motioning to the workers, “you would have foreign countries doing that and then shipping it back. I don’t think that works out too well, fellas, what do you think? No good? No good, right?” The workers shifted uncertainly.
“Our air right now is cleaner than it’s ever been,” he said, also praising his administration’s environmental oversight. (That recurring claim is contested.)
For their part, Cameron LNG says, on their website, “Our name originates from Cameron Parish, known for its many lakes, wildlife refuges and natural beauty. Cameron Parish is also the largest of Louisiana’s parishes with 1,313 square miles of land and 619 square miles of water inhabited by reptiles of all sorts, fresh and saltwater wildlife, over 400 bird species, sportsmen of all types and local families. We have made a commitment to safeguard the environment in which we operate, and we hold that responsibility as paramount.”
Louisiana is the most polluted state, with 325 percent more industrial toxins than the national average, and 2,000 percent more than the state of California (fifth-cleanest). LNG is considered cleaner than oil or coal, but the Department of Energy anticipated that the nearby Cheniere LNG facility would emit 9,860,000 tons of CO2 and its equivalent every year, along with similar amounts of other chemical compounds. These are invisible.
That is the odd thing, living in the Anthropocene, when it is a lovely day and one often cannot see the process causing one’s demise. This must have been true in the plague years too.
Cameron is lovely prairie and marsh, with gators a few feet from cows grazing placidly near the canals. You cannot see all the pollutants. You cannot instantly see land subsidence, water rise, and erosion.
Above all, you cannot see the threat of what can occur every hurricane season, as it did in recent years with Rita and Ike, when water topped the highway bridge, homes and businesses were swept off their foundations, stray cattle that did not drown went mad from drinking brackish and had to be shot, and coffins popped loose from church graveyards and floated for miles until caught in the trees.
Cameron Parish, seen in satellite view, is as delicate as a Florentine cookie, barely held together in all this water. Here, in the age of global warming, is where billion-dollar energy facilities are being built, which are at risk from wind and floods made worse by climate change.
“The world’s first deepwater LNG import facility, the Gulf Gateway Energy Bridge Deepwater Port, was located 116 miles off the Louisiana coast in federal waters,” the US Energy Information Administration says. “Commissioned in March 2005, this facility delivered natural gas to the Gulf Coast region through two offshore pipeline systems until Hurricane Ike damaged both pipelines in September 2008. The port was decommissioned in 2012.”
Inside the plant, Trump was finishing up. He tried but could not say Calcasieu. “Cal-cass-coo-shoo,” he said. “You know, you’ve been saying that word your whole lives. Me? I just heard it about 20 minutes ago.”
This was his third visit to Louisiana, and his second to Calcasieu, as President.
“If we win this election,” he hinted, “which is just 16 months away, we’re giving you a brand-new I-10 bridge.” He was referring to the fatally-flawed highway bridge between Lake Charles and Sulphur, which is not only poorly maintained but was damaged in 1994 by an enormous chemical spill at the Conoco plant. (I wrote about it recently.) Trump got enormous applause and a standing ovation.
“I didn’t know it was gonna be that popular,” he said.
His motorcade left Cameron LNG as a terrible wildfire raged across the road in the wild grasses to the horizon, which grew in a flat sheet of water. From certain angles it looked as if the water was on fire. Flames five-feet high rose next to cars passing the facility. Cumulus clouds of smoke blew away toward Texas.
I was caught in the traffic for hours. My son called to ask if he could go to the state baseball championship, being held in Sulphur, after school. He had heard Trump would throw out the first pitch. I said yes, but Trump had already crossed the bridge in The Beast by then, headed for New Orleans and a fundraising dinner said to be worth $5 million for the Trump Victory Fund.