Both Republicans and Democrats in deep-red Louisiana have warmed up to the idea of carbon removal, a practice that involves capturing carbon dioxide from large industrial operations and storing it a mile underground. Federal tax incentives promise to make the burgeoning industry profitable at a time when businesses are looking to slash their carbon emissions. There’s one big hangup: The Environmental Protection Agency has been slow to issue permits for underground wells where the captured carbon is supposed to be stored. 

So when the agency announced in the waning days of 2023 that it’s handing over permitting duties, known as “primacy,” to Louisiana regulators, elected officials and industry executives celebrated. Republican Governor-elect Jeff Landry, who previously said that carbon reduction policies are “extremely destructive on the economy,” called the decision a “significant milestone in our state’s economic development.” 

Even the local branch of Big Oil’s lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute, or API, hailed the move as a boon for growth and sustainability. “Today’s decision will empower the state to continue to be a leader in energy production, community engagement, and environmental progress while boosting the local economy,” Gifford Briggs, API’s Gulf Coast regional director, reportedly told local news outlets. 

Environmentalists and many locals are not as enthusiastic. Though it holds the promise of reducing climate-warming emissions from highly polluting facilities, carbon removal is a nascent industry that some scientists warn could pose serious health risks to nearby communities. When a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide ruptured in Mississippi in February 2020, dozens of people were hospitalized after experiencing shortness of breath and passing out. Some residents were initially unable to drive their cars to the hospital because the high levels of carbon dioxide in the air prevented their engines from starting. 

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And since the gas will be captured from industrial facilities, its transfer and storage will disproportionately occur in places already overburdened by air pollution. In Louisiana, the country’s third-poorest state, those communities are predominantly Black and low-income. Advocates worry that a state with a legacy of lax oversight of oil and gas companies is the wrong place to streamline permitting for more planned carbon removal projects than anywhere else in the country.

The carbon removal industry “just hasn’t been going on that long,” said James Yskamp, a senior attorney at the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice. “So we just think it’s a little bit of a mistake to hand over primacy to a state that there’s this big of a planned build-out for.”

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The wells that would store carbon dioxide are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which requires businesses to prevent fluids and waste that they store underground from contaminating public water supplies. While the EPA is the default authority for issuing companies permits to operate these injection wells, the agency can choose to delegate the responsibility to states that prove to have implemented a permitting program of their own. To date, federal regulators have handed off what’s known as “primacy” to just two other states — North Dakota and Wyoming — and Earthjustice says that neither state has any operating wells that store carbon dioxide. 

A concerned resident stands next to a river near Lake Maurepas in Louisiana, where she worries about the environmental impacts of new carbon capture projects.
Polly Glover poses for a photograph at the St. James Boat Club launch, along part of the Lake Maurepas watershed. The CO2 captured at the Air Products and Chemicals facility will be stored in sites such as under Lake Maurepas. Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

Louisiana applied for permitting powers in September 2021, but it wasn’t until this past June that the EPA held a hearing on it. Even though the vast majority of the 45,000 comments submitted to the agency during the public comment period were in opposition to the state’s bid, EPA Administrator Michael Reagan signed over the permitting duties to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources on December 28. It’s a decision with sweeping implications for the carbon removal industry. Louisiana has more applications for carbon dioxide injection wells than any other state, with 22 of the 61 proposals pending with federal regulators. And as state officials have promised to speed up the permitting process for these wells, the Pelican State could become an important testing ground for the new technology.

Regan has said that provisions in its agreement with Louisiana will guarantee that the permitting is done right. “We’re building in monitoring and oversight measures to ensure that the state — regardless of who is in the governor’s office — complies” with federal law, Regan told the Associated Press in late December.

Environmental advocates aren’t so confident. In a 60-page letter submitted to the EPA in June, Earthjustice laid out a litany of problems with Louisiana’s permitting proposal, and argued that state regulators don’t have the expertise needed to approve and regulate carbon dioxide wells. The organization pointed to the EPA’s own research indicating that these wells are more sophisticated than other types of underground storage systems, since they create high-pressure conditions with the ability to crack subsurface rocks and cause dangerous leaks. Modeling exercises are necessary to understand the scope of these risks, but Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources has “no experience” conducting this type of study, according to Jane Patton, a New Orleans-based campaign manager for the Center for International Environmental Law.

In its letter, Earthjustice wrote that the state of Louisiana’s permitting program absolves businesses of responsibility for their well sites after 50 years, a provision that the organization says conflicts with federal regulations. A lack of scientific research into the long term impacts and efficacy of carbon storage make this half-century benchmark arbitrary, they argued. 

Carbon removal “hasn’t been proven to efficiently and effectively capture the carbon emissions, and it hasn’t been proven to permanently store the amount of carbon that we’re proposing to store here safely,” said Yskamp, the Earthjustice attorney. He argues that fossil fuel companies are piloting most of the state’s carbon removal projects as a way of “greenwashing” their pollution. 

Louisiana officials say the carbon removal industry will be a boon for the economy. In its latest annual report, the state’s economic development agency projected that the industry will create more than 2,300 new jobs in the state over the next year. But there are questions about how long those jobs will last. Patton told the Louisiana Illuminator, a nonprofit news outlet, that the lion’s share of these positions are temporary construction jobs that won’t benefit state residents in the long term. 

Advocates are also concerned that carbon dioxide wells will pose public health risks in places where air pollution is already a problem. The Earthjustice letter pointed to numerous projects that would be built right next to predominantly Black neighborhoods, including Air Products’ proposed ammonium plant in Ascension Parish. The parish sits along the lower Mississippi River in the state’s main industrial corridor, a region known as “Cancer Alley” for the concentration of petrochemical plants there.

Regan has offered reassurances that people living near well sites will be protected, pointing to measures in the EPA’s agreement with Louisiana designed to shield vulnerable communities from the hazards associated with carbon storage. The concern is that the state will not honor these provisions, given its history of coziness with the oil and gas industry, and Landry’s recent lawsuit against the federal government for trying to enforce civil rights law in the state’s most polluted areas. 

“Communities across Louisiana are depending on these provisions to protect them from decades of environmental policy that put these very communities at risk from illness, pollution, and death,” wrote Beverly Wright, the founder and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, in a statement. “Louisiana’s most vulnerable cannot be left exposed to an untested pollution control technology without accountability.”

Editor’s note: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.