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Louisiana kicks off one of the US’s biggest carbon capture projects yet

A massive effort to capture the pollution causing climate change is marching forward in Louisiana, and it’s becoming a major flashpoint in the debate over how to clean up an “energy state” speckled with fossil fuel and petrochemical plants.

This week, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards announced an “unprecedented” collaboration between two oil and gas giants, ExxonMobil and EnLink Midstream, and leading ammonia producer CF Industries. In what they’re calling the “largest-of-its-kind commercial agreement,” the three companies will attempt to capture 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, transport the gas across the state, and bury it underground.

Three companies will attempt to capture 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, transport them across the state, and bury them underground

Edwards is billing it as a major move toward reaching the state’s goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As it loses ground to rising sea levels and braces each year for increasingly strong hurricanes, Louisiana is already grappling with the consequences of climate change. But critics of the new carbon capture project say it’s the wrong way to go about preventing more climate-fueled disasters.

“Projects like this serve as a vehicle for greenwash at a massive scale,” says Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law. “It allows companies who continue to be serious polluters, continue to be contributing significantly to the climate crisis, to present themselves to the public and to regulators as part of the solution.”

CF Industries has a $198.5 million plan to install equipment at its giant ammonia facility in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, that should be able to capture up to 2 million metric tons of its CO2 emissions a year. That’s equivalent to “replacing approximately 700,000 gasoline-powered cars with electric vehicles,” according to CF Industries’ press release.

But that captured CO2 is a fraction of the roughly 10 million metric tons of CO2 emissions the Donaldsonville facility produced in 2019. CF Industries’ ammonia plant is the biggest source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in Louisiana, pumping out more than 50 percent more CO2 in 2019 than the next biggest source of emissions — ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery. CF Industries uses natural gas to produce ammonia, which is a major component of industrial fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizers are an often overlooked source of significant greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for about as much emissions globally as aviation. And fossil fuel and chemical fertilizer industries are working together to benefit from public subsidies for purported climate solutions like carbon capture, finds a report Muffett’s organization published earlier this month.

That captured CO2 is a fraction of the 10 million metric tons of CO2 emissions the Donaldsonville facility produced

Once CO2 emissions are captured at CF Industries’ Donaldsonville facility, they will need to be transported and stored somewhere to keep them from entering the atmosphere and heating up the planet. The greenhouse gas is supposed to travel about 100 miles via EnLink Midstream’s pipelines to a “125,000-acre secure geologic storage location” that ExxonMobil owns in Vermilion Parish. But piping CO2 across long distances has already raised safety concerns after one pipeline carrying concentrated CO2 (an asphyxiant) ruptured and sent dozens of residents of Satartia, Mississippi, to the hospital in 2020.

Nevertheless, US lawmakers have earmarked billions of dollars in federal funding and tax credits for carbon capture infrastructure in the name of climate action. Companies like CF Industries and ExxonMobil are clamoring to take advantage, as the new Louisiana project — slated to “start up” by 2025 — shows.

“We’re ready to offer the same service to other large industrial customers in the state of Louisiana and around the world,” Dan Ammann, president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, said in the same release. “We’re encouraged by the momentum we see building for projects of this kind.”

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