Louisiana, one of the country’s top oil producers and refiners, became the first Deep South state to join an interstate climate compact to meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals earlier this month.
The action is the latest in a series of actions taken by Democratic governor John Bel Edwards to establish a climate strategy for a state that will be hit hard by the Atlantic hurricane season in 2020, which is expected to be the worst on record. Last year, he issued an executive order setting a target of being net-zero by 2050 and forming the state’s first climate task team. The US Climate Alliance, the most current pact, also contains commitments to reduce net emissions by 25% by 2025 and 50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.
Those are the most ambitious short-term ambitions. Louisiana has said that it wants to reduce net emissions by a quarter in less than five years. The state hasn’t done a complete inventory of its carbon emissions since 2010, but “we’re quite consistent around 210 million tonnes of CO2,” according to David Dismukes, an economist at Louisiana State University. He is working on one for later this year.
This implies Louisiana will have to reduce emissions by nearly 50 million metric tonnes, which is more than the entire transportation industry. According to Dismukes, the issue is that Louisiana lacks a long institutional history of doing things that lead to a low-carbon future. “Getting to 2025 is going to be a challenge.”
Because Louisiana’s emissions are derived from quite diverse sources than the rest of the country, decarbonization would have to be approached differently. The industrial sector—the massive petrochemical and liquefied natural gas facilities along the Mississippi River and southern coast—is responsible for two-thirds of the state’s emissions, compared to around 13% nationally.
Oil and gas currently account for a quarter of Louisiana’s GDP. More than half of the country’s liquefied natural gas is exported from the state, which possesses a fifth of the country’s total oil refining capacity. (However, because much of the drilling takes place in federal seas and the petroleum is consumed elsewhere, not all of that activity is included in Louisiana’s carbon budget.)
“When people hear the word [decarbonize], they often think of solar and wind,” adds Dismuke. “And that would be true in a lot of places,” says the author. But that’s not the case here. Power plants generate about 30 to 35 million tonnes of carbon, so you could replace every power plant in the state and still not reach 50 million.”
No one knows where the state’s carbon savings will come from without an entire inventory. However, Dismuke believes the state will get a lot of bang for its dollars by capturing carbon at specific industrial units.
He claims that there are several relatively inexpensive options for doing so. When creating ‘feedstock’ chemicals, the raw ingredients for processes, ammonia and liquefied natural gas processors, both release substantial volumes of almost pure CO2, and Dismuke estimates that collecting such streams may cut emissions by around 30 million metric tonnes.
However, alternative carbon capture technologies, particularly after the fuel has been used, are prohibitively expensive, and no one has yet found out how to store CO2. Meanwhile, increases in efficiency over the last decade have been offset by an increase in the number of facilities.
Nonetheless, all of the high objectives do not imply that Louisiana is ready to give up fossil fuels. Edwards made a more difficult plea to Congress this week: more significant investment in green business, but also an end to the moratorium on federal oil leasing.
“While still pursuing safe and prudent oil and gas exploration,” Edwards stated, “I encourage this Congress and the Biden Administration to adopt a reasonable and balanced strategy to responding to the implications of climate change.”
Not only is the state’s economy strongly reliant on oil and gas, but the business also provides funding for climate adaptation. Louisiana receives a portion of federal offshore oil production money, which it reinvests in its comprehensive shoreline conservation program, a decade-long “master plan” to shore up rapidly disintegrating wetlands. (BP’s compensation following the Deepwater Horizon accident provides additional financing for the program.)
Representatives from the oil and chemical sectors and an organization that helped build a Gulf South platform for a Green New Deal are on the governor’s climate task team.
As a result, it appears that the state is pursuing both green industry and oil. Edwards encouraged the federal government to begin examining the Gulf of Mexico for offshore wind projects in front of Congress, and he praised the development of a $700 million biodiesel plant.
Coastal restoration will probably play a significant role in its ambitions. Although marshland helps absorb carbon, the Environmental Protection Agency has recently begun to measure the benefits. Because the state is already developing marshland, it may credit those acres against its carbon objectives, similar to how another state may count a forestry project.
There are several reasons to believe that Louisiana might become a green job hotspot. Oil and gas heavy engineering professions require skills that are similar to renewable energy and coastal restoration.
“Every time you speak about it, people assume you’re going to eliminate employment or create new types of occupations,” says Robert Habans, an economist at the Data Center in New Orleans. They believe that “all these oil and gas employment would just vanish if we go net-zero, or that we will generate all these highly specialized occupations we haven’t even considered yet if we go net-zero.” But the fact is that most of these changes have a more significant impact on current occupations than they do on developing new job categories.”
Habans has written about the “water management cluster,” a poorly defined business that has sprung up in part due to the state’s massive coastline restoration efforts and employs hundreds. “At their heart, these are mostly scientific, design, engineering, and construction operations, but they also comprise a larger range of activities connected to environmental change adaptation.”
These are emerging markets as other beaches experience the same erosion and invasion that has ravaged Louisiana for decades. And, no matter how slowly the state’s fossil fuel sector is phased out, the industry’s long-term prospects are bleak. “Ultimately,” Habans adds, “whether we can leverage on this sort of expenditure that we believe will happen for renewable energy and what we know is occurring in coastal protection will determine how the impending energy transition transforms Louisiana.”