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As Gov. Edwards touts greener gas alternatives at COP26, activists call it ‘a smokescreen’

Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke with other leaders about climate change policy during day 2 of the COP26 Glasgow climate change summit on Nov. 2, 2021.
Courtesy of America Is All In YouTube page
Gov. John Bel Edwards spoke with other leaders about climate change policy during day 2 of the COP26 Glasgow climate change summit on Nov. 2, 2021.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards joined fellow state and national officials in Glasgow, Scotland Tuesday to share his long-term vision for the state’s fight against climate change, even as competing interest groups back home expressed different views of their own.

He joined Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham of New Mexico, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and White House Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy for a panel discussion hosted by the U.S. Climate Action Center at the United Nations Climate Conference better known as COP26.

Throughout the conference, Edwards has taken a middle road on climate change policy, advocating for an “all of the above” approach to fighting the climate crisis. He has promoted the use of renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. But he has also advocated for the increased use of liquid natural gas (LNG) as a cleaner alternative to coal, and carbon sequestration, a practice that reduces the amount of carbon dioxide large-scale petrochemical facilities release into the atmosphere.

Some critics say carbon capture and sequestration would be impractical at any scale that would significantly affect rising temperatures, but the theoretical potential of the technology gives polluters cover to continue harmful practices instead of investing in the transformative changes needed to create a more sustainable energy future.

“We are a traditional oil and gas state,” Edwards said. “That remains a very important part of our economy, and it drives an awful lot of jobs. And because we have the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast, we have more than our fair share of chemical manufacturing and refining, all of which is important and none of which is going to go away tomorrow.”

Because those industries have been major economic drivers for decades, Edwards said many people in the state are apprehensive about the changes climate change promises to bring to the energy sector. But the second-term Democrat has reached out to climate change skeptics and framed the challenge of shifting industry values as an opportunity for economic development.

The state has invested heavily in liquid natural gas as a greener alternative to coal and an intermediate step on the road to clean energy.

Southwest Louisiana is the epicenter of the burgeoning liquid natural gas industry and where natural gas prices are set for the entire North American natural gas market. It’s also where the World LNG & Gas Series is hosting its Americas Summit and Exhibition in Lake Charles from Nov. 2-4, in direct conflict with the climate summit in Glasgow.

Hours before the LNG conference was set to begin, a group of climate activists gathered in Lake Charles to express their frustration at the state’s embrace of natural gas.

“Clean fuel is a smokescreen,” Naomi Yoder, staff scientist with Healthy Gulf, said. “LNG is a fossil fuel that’s dressed up to justify its extraction, and it’s lining the pockets of a few CEOs. How does that help us here in southwest Louisiana with our recovery?”

The groups of activists held a press conference before touring local petrochemical facilities and storm damage from last year’s Hurricanes Laura and Delta — damage Yoder said was made worse by corporate pollution and the effects of climate change.

Natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal, but the fuel source is not without its environmental problems. Aging natural gas pipeline infrastructure leads to leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

“There is so much infrastructure required for LNG,” Yoder said. “Why are we building all of these things when we don’t have viable choices to rebuild our communities?”

James Hiatt, Southwest Louisiana Coordinator for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said he is tired of being called resilient.

“What we want is action,” Hiatt said. “And what we need is people to listen and become aware of what’s going on.”

Hiatt, also a lifelong resident of southwest Louisiana and a former petrochemical industry worker, said he is tired of seeing the continued development of liquid natural gas infrastructure in southwest Louisiana, specifically projects that allow companies to secure long-term tax breaks that deprive communities of the funds needed to adequately fund education and drainage systems.

“We’re placing profits over people… If we keep doing what we’re doing, in the next 30 years, as the world transitions to renewable energy, all we will have is a bunch of empty tanks lining our river rotting away.”

Edwards will participate in another panel discussion at COP26 Wednesday morning.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.