“These streets should be paved with gold”
How a decade-long refinery worker became an anti-LNG campaigner
On Friday, the Biden Administration announced a temporary pause on Department of Energy permit approvals for new liquified methane gas, or LNG, export terminals.
I’ve been reporting a lot on that decision this week—specifically, trying to untangle some of the most prominent misinformation being spread about it from both Democrats and Republicans, to help you better understand what it really means for the climate, the economy, and energy security.
I’ll have a newsletter laying all that out for you on Thursday. But in the meantime, I wanted to share with you an interview I did with James Hiatt, a third-generation former oil worker from Louisiana who has been campaigning against the LNG build-out for the last two years, most recently at his non-profit, Better Bayou.
His personal story serves as a powerful debunking of fossil fuel industry narratives about the benefits of LNG in Louisiana. Here it is, told in his own words.
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By James Hiatt, as told to Emily Atkin
My wife says I have oppositional defiant disorder. Because if I see injustice, it’s like a moth to a flame.
I started working for the refinery when I was 24 years old, and I worked there for 12 years. First I was a ship agent taking care of cargo and customs paperwork, then I worked as an operator, then in the lab.
Even back then, I was trying to do my part. I drove a hybrid to work, and I was hyper-conscious of my consumerism. But I justified working at the refinery because I had bills. This is what everybody does: try to make the most money for the least amount of time.
I also justified it by the fact that we were fueling America, and we were. At the time, we were importing this heavy, sour crude that came from Venezuela, which you make diesel and jet fuel out of. I had this mindset that there was no alternative, and that the system was too big to fail. This is not the mindset I have today.
I didn’t retire. I stepped in it. I got fired for sticking up for someone they were being unjust with, and they didn’t like it. I’m not supposed to talk about it because there was a settlement involved. But they were wrong for firing me. They had to settle with the union.
I usually never name the actual refinery I worked for, because then it becomes a site-specific thing and I’d rather focus on the systemic problems. These companies use the same tactics all over the place. They’ll say “Safety First,” and tell you that if you don't feel safe, you have every right to stop work. But then every time you actually use your stop work authority, it’s a problem, because they don't want to stop work.
[Editor's note: HEATED chose not to include the name of the refinery for legal reasons]
So I settled with the union, but I wasn’t looking to become an environmentalist. After I got fired, my wife told me, “You’ve always wanted to be a social worker. Why don’t you go do it?” I came to realize that we all have one life, and I wasn't being fulfilled trading time for a lot of money. So I did; I went back to school in January 2020, and then I graduated in December 2021. I was going to become a social worker and help heal people where they’re at.
But then one day when I was at church, somebody posted this job description for a campaign coordinator position fighting LNG. And the hair on my arms stood up.
I thought to myself, “They just built all these plastic facilities here in 2018.” And I saw nobody standing up against that, no opposition to that. And now we're talking about LNG?
At first I was convinced, the LNG must be cleaner. But then I came to learn that fracking, which is how they get most of the gas, is God-awful. Sure, the gas itself might be clean-burning, but the process to get the fuel out of the ground and to that point is just as bad as every other extractive way we've been taking carbon out.
I also saw that the LNG boom in the area wasn’t really benefiting communities. Like, we already have three LNG terminals in Cameron Parish–one that started operating in 2018 and one that started in 2020–and it looks like the hurricane we had in 2020 hit yesterday. There's not even a church. The only people who live in the town are the fishermen who have seen the worst catch they've ever had. Come look at Cameron, and tell me if this looks like some prosperous economic development, and not extractive profits for somebody from elsewhere. These streets should be paved with gold. But they're not.
The industry keeps saying LNG is good for jobs: jobs, jobs, jobs! But there are no jobs. There's construction jobs that last for 2 or 3 years, but the governor has to get visas for pipefitters and welders from Mexico to come and build them. Because we don't have enough workers locally.
So I applied to that job, which was for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and I got it. Then eventually, I started my own non-profit, For a Better Bayou, which is focused on raising awareness about protecting Louisiana's natural resources. Actually, tomorrow will be our one-year birthday.
It is difficult doing this work here in Louisiana. I have friends that work at every one of these LNG facilities and most of these plants. Last night, I was at my friend's house for a campfire, and he’s an engineer at one of these petrochemical places. And he told me would love to go work at an LNG facility, because they pay better than the union jobs. But he also understands the work that I'm doing. He agrees, and many people do. Because they have taken and taken and taken from us.
But this is MAGA country. So it’s difficult. People do want to love their neighbor, but they don't understand who the neighbor is sometimes.
It’s hard to talk about climate change here, too, because people have bought into this idea that it's not it's not human-caused. And that’s because accepting climate change requires you to become uncomfortable with the way you're living. The system has made it so we can be comfortable, and any challenge to that system makes you uncomfortable. So now you just side with the system.
So a lot of these conversations I have are just listening, hearing where people are coming from. Like that friend I was talking about earlier, we grew up in the same neighborhood. His older brother was one of my best friends, and he has asthma. He moved to Hawaii maybe 10 or 12 years ago. And in Hawaii, he doesn't have asthma. He doesn't have to worry about his asthma pump.
Was that because of this environment? Was it because of the humidity? Or was it because we have massive amounts of pollution being emitted into the atmosphere? I don't know, but I know that he lives in a humid place in Hawaii and doesn't have asthma. And when he comes home, he has to have his asthma pump with him.
So I try to have these conversations about what might be better, because the system at large here does not allow us to have them. Even our local media is captured by industry, both the newspaper and the TV. Like the other night, all these flares were going off at one of the plastic refineries, and the whole sky was orange. So the local TV station aired a segment, and the end message was essentially: “This is our noisy neighbor that we just have to put up with.” They said it’s better that they flare than they explode. And it’s like, really? These are our only options? We flare and pollute, or we explode?
This narrative has really taken hold here, the one that says we must accept the oil and gas industry, because without them we’ll have nothing. And it’s indicative of folks who have no hope. It’s tied back to our poverty of imagination of what could be.
The reality is that, when the oil industry is done extracting and using and making profits off us, they will leave. And we will still have no jobs. So to have these conversations with my friends and family and people who still work with industry, it’s important to me. Because when people hear stories, it breaks through some of that.
Like my mama, she passed away last year. And she had a green thumb that wouldn’t quit, especially for tomatoes. I don’t want a future where the coast is eroded to my doorstep, and all the tomatoes are wrapped up in plastic at the store. I want a future where we can still grow tomatoes on our fertile ground.
Catch of the Day: That Kitty and reader Tony are here today is here today is nothing short of a miracle.
During the Camp Fire in 2018—the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history—Tony went back into the town of Paradise to rescue his beloved cat. “We ended up being trapped in the fire for 4 hours and nearly died,” Tony writes. “But we made it out.”
You can read more about their harrowing escape here.