LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana (AP) — The front lawn of Lydia Larce’s home is strewn with debris: Remnants of cabinets and chunks of pink shower marble lie between dumpsters. She lives in a FEMA trailer out back, her home in shambles more than a year after Hurricane Laura tore through Lake Charles.
Larce, like many in Southwest Louisiana, has what she calls “storm PTSD.” Tornado warnings trigger anxiety. She fidgets and struggles to sleep.
"The fear and the unknown — it has me on an edge,” Larce said. “I’m scared.”
A string of devastating hurricanes has torn through this region in recent years. Nationally, too, there have been more Category 4 and 5 hurricane landfalls in the past five years than in the previous 50 years combined. Larce and her neighbors know they are on the front lines of climate change.
Her region is now the epicenter of a trend that she fears will make those disasters even more destructive.
Developers plan to build a series of liquefied natural gas export facilities across Southwest Louisiana, already the heart of the industry. Even in a state with a heavy industrial base, these facilities are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in Louisiana.
“They’re an absolute powerhouse for greenhouse gas emissions,” said Naomi Yoder, a staff scientist at Healthy Gulf, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy. That’s because these export facilities tend to burn off, or flare, natural gas.
Greenhouse gases are raising global temperatures and fueling extreme weather, from wildfires to violent storms like the ones that have pummeled Larce’s hometown.
“We all are living in chaos," Larce said.
For a while, it looked as though an era of steadily expanding fossil fuel facilities might be ending. Last year, after taking office, President Joseph Biden announced his intention to fight climate change by eliminating fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2035 and by sharply reducing emissions from the rest of the economy.
Yet since Biden became president, the U.S. has become the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas as demand for the fuel, known as LNG, has escalated.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suddenly intensified the push. It heightened demand for natural gas, especially for countries in Europe that relied on Russian energy but now need to cut those ties.
Seizing the opportunity, the natural gas industry promoted U.S.-produced LNG as a way to fill the gaps, and prices for the fuel have skyrocketed. American terminals are now exporting gas at full capacity, which is why the expansion of the terminals has accelerated.
It is along the Gulf Coast, in a line from Louisiana to Texas, where the new and proposed export terminals are clustered. Talk to some locals and government officials and you'll hear unqualified support for the facilities in this battered region.
“It’s a significant boon to our economy, because it provides good, high-paying jobs,” said Eric Tarver, a member of the Calcasieu Parish School Board and chief financial officer of Lake Charles Toyota. “More than that, it’s a tremendous amount of tax revenue that just dwarfs what we’ve had from any other industry.”
But some long-time residents — often the ones who've lost the most to the storms — dispute those claims, saying that few of those coveted jobs end up going to people who grew up in the region.
REGION IN DISTRESS
Scattered across the neighborhoods of Lake Charles, blue tarps cover dozens of dilapidated roofs. Bungalows, pockmarked by gaping holes, are marred by broken siding and boarded-up windows — evidence of the damage inflicted by Hurricanes Laura and Delta more than a year ago. Yet with few other options, some residents are living here under the tarps.