Chester LNG plant viewed as dead after Biden directive, opponents say
| February 1, 2024
Opponents of a plan to site a liquified natural gas plant in Chester, Pa., applauded a White House directive that they say could permanently derail a project that would exacerbate harmful health conditions in an environmental justice community already overburdened by pollution-spewing plants and facilities.
The mayor of Chester, Stefan Roots, on Thursday called a Biden administration announcement last week that it was pausing any decisions regarding permit approvals of new LNG exports a “knockout punch” to the proposed export plant on the Delaware River. He said the White House directive would make a project that has dragged on for years and lagged in progress “super difficult” to now get funding.
“During this period, we will take a hard look at the impacts of LNG exports on energy costs, America’s energy security and our environment,” Biden said in the announcement. “This pause on new LNG approvals sees the climate crisis for what it is: the existential threat of our time.”
Given that the $6.4 billion proposal in Chester has not started the permitting process, this temporary pause represents good news, said Zulene Mayfield, chairwoman of Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living, an activist community group.
“Listen, we don’t get many wins in our community,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday, adding that opponents were mindful that this is an election year and that political promises made today could later be rolled back.
Mayfield said members of her group were not going to let their guard down. “We’ve got eyes on it,” she said of the project. “We don’t want to give a false sense of security. We’re going to celebrate but our heads are still going to be on a swivel.”
The proposal to build an LNG plan at 800 West Front Street on the Delaware called for taking natural gas from one of the nearby networks of pipelines in Marcus Hook, Pa., and cooling it to 260 degrees below zero (roughly the equivalent of the temperature of the surface of the planet Mercury at night), which would condense it into a form that would allow it to be exported overseas.
Supporters of the project saw it as a way to meet a growing global demand for LNG, especially as other countries reduce their dependence on major suppliers, such as Russia.
Franc James, the chairman and chief executive of the company behind the project, Penn LNG, did not respond to an email request for comment sent on Tuesday.
If the project is ultimately derailed, it would mean the end to a proposal that has been long simmering.
The seeds of the project date back to at least August 2016, when a KPMG study for Penn America outlined a timetable that, at the time, called for construction to take place from December 2019 through October 2023.
In March 2022, James was drumming up interest in the project with overseas markets, including outreach to officials in countries like Lithuania and Germany to provide a long-term supply of LNG, according to emails Delaware Currents obtained under public records requests.
The emails show that the U.S. ambassador to Germany in July 2022 hosted a reception for James at the embassy in Berlin.
At the time, according to the emails, James pitched the LNG plant as being “conceived and engineered in support of our allies in the EU from a national and energy security perspective and an environmental solution to displace coal and oil for power generation.”
The emails also reveal the involvement of a community engagement consultant, and coordination of meetings with members of Congress and union and community leaders.
Behind the scenes in February 2020, James floated the idea of a Penn LNG Foundation to benefit the Chester, with an emphasis on jobs, education and safety.
In an email to the then-mayor, Thaddeus Kirkland, James cited an “informal tour” of the city as a precursor to siting an “entertainment and sports complex” in Chester as well as “the implementation of an education program intended to supplement and support the Chester public and charter schools.”
James wrote that the foundation would exist as a “separate entity/trustee targeting community benefits programs,” adding, “this effort must start now.”
LNG task force findings
Supporters of the Chester plan cite the opportunity to tap Pennsylvania’s extracted natural gas, and the jobs, tax revenue and wages the project would bring.
In a September interview on the Pennsylvania Business Report podcast, Carl Marrara, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said the closest LNG export facility to Pennsylvania is in Maryland.
He said that siting an LNG plant in Chester “makes a whole lot of sense” because recent dredging of the Delaware River would allow ships to transport the gas worldwide.
“Chester is really one of the, if maybe the only, location in Pennsylvania that would be able to handle a project like that from a logistics standpoint,” he said.
Construction jobs would amount to about 4,300 per year and the project would generate more than $700 million in local, state and federal taxes, according a final report issued in November by a Philadelphia LNG Export Task Force.
The task force, a bipartisan effort signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2022, held hearings and conducted research to explore the feasibility of using the Port of Philadelphia as an LNG export terminal.
The group held its final hearing in August in Chester to hear from residents, opponents and supporters of the planned LNG plant. Notably, in a map spotlighting proposed LNG export terminals, the one in Chester was not among those listed in the final report.
A minority report filed by state Rep. Joe Hohenstein, a Democrat from Philadelphia County, included supplemental testimony from Dr. Marilyn Howarth, the director of community engagement at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
She noted that “siting an LNG export facility in or near Chester would increase risks to an already environmentally overburdened community.” She added that residents could expect increases in cases of asthma, heart attacks, strokes and cancer related to air pollution from the plant.
One of the speakers at a news conference in a plaza across from City Hall on Thursday, State Representative Carol Kazeem, scoffed at the report’s findings that there would be no harm from an LNG export plant. “How dare you,” she said. “No dollars can buy the health risks of my family and friends in my community.”
The mayor said the community needed to seize the opportunity presented by the pause and look for ways to develop the waterfront that would be beneficial to the city.
“Anybody who stands on the waterfront at daybreak sees one of the most beautiful sunrises, I’m going to say, in the world,” Roots said. “There is no one who would not want to get out on their condo deck with a cup of coffee and their Dunkin’ doughnut looking out at the sunrise.”
Mayfield on Thursday declared the permitting pause to be “another nail in the coffin of Penn America” but she vowed that activists would diligently keep an eye out for any signs of life in the project.
“We don’t back down,” she said. “We’re not scared. And after 30 years, we are not tired.”