How gas demand from Boston changed a faraway island
POINT FORTIN, Trinidad and Tobago
Michelle Dove loved her old home: the neighborhood basketball games on Christmas morning, the fresh fish from the beach down the street, the loving community where she planned to raise her baby daughter, Miracle.
That was before a Boston firm showed up in Trinidad with plans of its own.
In the mid-1990s, the seaside Caribbean town of Point Fortin was transformed by the construction of a liquefied natural gas plant. The idea was hatched by a Cabot Corporation subsidiary with one primary goal: providing Boston with natural gas when the constrained pipelines into New England max out.
The state’s aversion to expanding pipelines — originally driven by unlucky geography, now on the belief that stopping them helps fight climate change — has not meant that fewer are built. Instead, it’s outsourced the state’s fossil fuel infrastructure to places where natural gas is produced and shipped with looser rules, at greater damage to the climate, and where people like Dove and her neighbors face the consequences.
First came the construction, carried out at a breakneck pace, beginning in 1996, which created dust, noise, vibration. A treasured local beach was destroyed for one of the new pipelines into the plant, which is fed by offshore fields operated by oil and gas giants like BP and Shell. Gas flaring began: plumes of fire that sent heat and light billowing above nearby neighborhoods.
A doctor documented local complaints of respiratory illness. Residents reported runny or burning eyes, rashes, lost sleep. Dove said she had three miscarriages, which she blamed on the stress of living so close to the plant, called Atlantic LNG.
Then there was the noise, which terrified Miracle. “Sometimes the plant would roar like a lion; she used to be so scared,” Dove told the Globe. “I wanted my daughter, my family, out of there at any cost.”
Gas processed in this isolated corner of the developing world keeps Massachusetts warm, helps the state keep the lights on during the winter, and has arrived in vast quantities to the terminal in Everett: more than 2 trillion cubic feet since Trinidad’s inaugural cargo came to Boston in 1999, an amount that would be enough to meet all the state’s gas needs for more than four consecutive years. LNG imports enjoy surprisingly broad support, including even from environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation and the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, which told federal regulators that LNG imports through Everett were a “significantly less expensive and disruptive” way of meeting winter energy needs than tolerating gas infrastructure projects in Massachusetts.
In interviews with residents, lawyers, and members of Trinidad’s beleaguered environmental community, a picture emerges of a plant that has created jobs and brought wealth to Point Fortin, but also upset residents who lived in its shadow; induced more offshore drilling that hurts the island’s fishermen; and set in motion an uneven economic relationship that critics say failed to fairly compensate the twin-island state of Trinidad and Tobago for its natural resources.
Whether it’s really a less expensive and disruptive option, in other words, may depend on whose expense and disruption matters.
Just across the Gulf of Paria from Venezuela, Point Fortin is an old oil town, and for decades was home to a now-defunct Shell refinery that was a major employer. The Atlantic plant made a different first impression. “Shell headquartered themselves in Point Fortin. . . . The managers lived here, they were part of the community. Let’s be frank, it wasn’t unusual to see white managers walking around,” said Rajendra Ramlogan, a lawyer who represented Dove and other residents in unsuccessful efforts to stop the government from allowing the plant to expand. “Atlantic LNG never functioned like that. They set up this plant . . . but they choose to have their office in Port of Spain.” That’s the capital city, two hours away, leaving people in Point Fortin to draw their own conclusions about Atlantic’s safety.
The government, though, saw LNG as a potential boon, and decisions kept going the project’s way. For instance, Trinidad and Tobago passed an environmental review law in 1995, but delayed implementing it until the first section of the plant, which services Boston, was completed. Whether the delay was coincidental or not, that first phase of construction “was essentially unregulated,” Ramlogan said. A history of the project published in 2004 says the speed was motivated by a desire to get into the Boston market as fast as possible to head off pipeline competition.
Residents soon had an array of complaints, which intensified as the plant expanded to a total of four liquefaction units, known as trains. Doon Sajadyar — another one of the residents cited when Ramlogan filed the challenge against the government over the Atlantic plant — complained of the foul odors and said that two of her children suffered increased respiratory problems. Yvonne Niles, who lives just down the street from the plant, told the Globe she had experienced heat and noise — and also the loss of community when her neighbors were relocated after the company established a “buffer zone” around the plant. “We have no more neighborly love, it’s gone,” she said. “We have to abide by what’s happening around here.”
Dust and vibrations related to the plant’s construction stopped long ago. But the biggest and most visible environmental impact, gas flaring, continues: The amount of flared gas increased last year, when the company also experienced a fire and a “hydrocarbon release.”
The health impacts of flaring have been widely debated, and when a court in Trinidad rejected the challenge filed by Ramlogan, it cited a report by the country’s health ministry saying there was no increase in respiratory disease. Still, it’s not an implausible connection. The World Bank, which is pressing oil and gas companies to avoid routine flaring, says flares may emit “a variety of components hazardous to health,” including carbon monoxide and nitrogen monoxide, which can lead to respiratory problems; benzene, a known carcinogen; and other pollutants.
If the effect of flaring is hard to pin down, the plant’s contribution to climate change is not. Cooling gas into LNG is energy intensive under the best circumstances, giving it a higher carbon footprint than pipeline natural gas. In Trinidad, with year-round tropical heat, the process consumes even more energy. Last year, the plant said it emitted the equivalent of 4.9 million tons of carbon dioxide. That’s more than any single source in Massachusetts, and equivalent to about 6 percent of the state’s total emissions from all sources. Because of the way Massachusetts calculates its greenhouse gas emissions, the emissions in Trinidad associated with making the LNG shipped to Everett don’t show up in the state’s inventory — but they still occur.
The plant also continues to require new sources of natural gas to make up for dwindling production levels — and that requires more exploration, subjecting the waters around Trinidad to ear-splitting sound waves. “The seismic surveys wipe out the fishery,” said Gary Aboud, the secretary of Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an environmental group in Trinidad. Hunger for new gas also led the government to sign a deal with the Maduro regime in Venezuela to build a new pipeline to feed Atlantic LNG; it’s expected to come into service in 2020.
Atlantic did not answer questions from the Globe, but the company has responded to safety concerns in the past: It agreed to move some residents away from the immediate vicinity of the plant, and has said that it seeks to minimize flaring.
And the plant has many supporters. On a recent morning, Harry James, a resident of the Point Ligoure neighborhood who worked on the plant’s construction, pointed out parts of the shoreline where beaches that churches once used for baptisms had been removed, but said the sacrifice had been worth it. “It’s definitely good for the town, and provides a lot of employment,” he said. The plant is also widely known as a major benefactor of youth cricket in Trinidad, provides loans to local businesses, and supports sea turtle conservation efforts.
Still, skepticism about the LNG industry in Trinidad and Tobago now extends to the government — in part because revenues have failed to live up to expectations. While LNG was envisioned as a moneymaker, tax receipts have plunged, which the government attributes in part to oil and gas companies skirting the country’s tax net. “Trinidad and Tobago is not benefitting as we should from our natural gas resources, in the way that it was envisaged that we would,” said the nation’s prime minister, Keith Rowley, in March. Consultants hired by the government estimated it had lost as much as $6 billion in some years — a huge sum for a country of just over 1 million residents. The contracts governing LNG sales, concluded consultants Poten and Partners, have “hurt T&T badly.” New contracts giving the government more control over sales are reportedly in the works.
Back in Boston, Cabot is long gone from the LNG business. It cashed out in 2000. Its former Distrigas terminal in Everett now belongs to Exelon, which has no ownership stake in the Trinidad plant. Cabot’s old share of the first unit at the plant in Point Fortin, the one built at such impressive speed in the late 1990s, now belongs to China’s sovereign wealth fund.
In the years since, the region has become so reliant on LNG during the winter that federal regulators have concluded New England can’t do without it: Just before Christmas, Exelon received approval from regulators for a bailout that will put electric ratepayers in New England on the hook in order to keep the LNG flowing into Massachusetts.
It’s not the Everett port’s first stroke of luck. Under its various corporate owners, the terminal has lead a charmed life for a fossil fuel company, able to command the support of environmentalists and elected officials like Attorney General Maura Healey, who received campaign contributions from executives of Distrigas and its former owner, and who helped the company fend off pipeline competition.
Michelle Dove, meanwhile, finally left Beach Road. The Globe found her living in a small green house on a hillside about two miles from the plant. After leaving, she’d given birth to a son, following a smooth pregnancy. “My life has changed greatly, I’m sleeping better,” she said.
Still, she stays in touch with family in the old neighborhood and mourns the way it’s changed. “Now we don’t have no beaches,” she said. “We have sludge.”
And Massachusetts has what it wants: a way to make its symbolic stands against fossil fuels — while still getting them through someone else’s backyard.