Modern video platforms like TikTok are aiding activists in southwest Louisiana in a yearslong fight against the long-established liquefied natural gas industry.

President Joe Biden’s decision to pause approvals for LNG export projects, announced in January, may provide the first case study of TikTok’s power to enhance local advocacy and influence federal policy. 

On Jan. 26, the Biden administration said it was temporarily halting pending decisions on LNG exports to countries where the U.S. does not have free trade agreements. This would allow the Department of Energy to assess the effects of increased LNG exports on energy costs, national security and the environment, the administration said.

Burning natural gas produces cleaner energy than coal or oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, some experts say liquefying and exporting natural gas, which is necessary to ship it overseas, creates methane leaks that might offset those environmental benefits.

Decision reverberates in Louisiana

Some regarded the decision to pause new export projects as a huge step, especially because the U.S. is the world leader in LNG exports. If the pause leads to a ban on exports or future terminals, it would greatly limit the future supply of LNG, impacting gas prices and foreign relations.

Three of the country’s seven major LNG export terminals are located in southwest Louisiana. One more is already approved and under construction, and four terminals pending DOE approval are affected by the pause, the biggest being Calcasieu Pass 2 in Cameron Parish, Louisiana. The proposed terminal would be the largest of the five in operation on the Gulf of Mexico, with 22 more proposed or already approved.

Earlier this year, the president’s senior climate policy advisers, Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, organized meetings with activists opposing the proposed project, known as CP2. 

Activists have criticized the company, Venture Global LNG, for its conduct at the existing Calcasieu Pass terminal, which has operated since 2022. They accuse the company of frequent flaring, explosions, releasing toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases, destroying the local fishing industry and failing to provide long-term jobs or other financial support for the local community.

“The health and safety of our employees and the surrounding community, as well as compliance with all federal, state, and local environmental requirements, are Venture Global’s highest priorities,” a Venture Global LNG spokesperson said in a statement to the Medill News Service, citing “stringent” regulations from federal and state agencies protecting public health and the environment.

Among those who met with the White House were longtime southwest Louisiana residents including James Hiatt and Roishetta Sibley Ozane, who have worked on anti-LNG campaigns for years.

“They are permitted to pollute. There’s no community benefit, we pay them to pollute us so we die early and suffer in the meantime,” Hiatt said. “That doesn’t have to be that way.”

But someone else’s invitation to meet with the White House drew more attention from critics of the pause.

Bringing TikTok on the scene

In October, Alex Haraus, a 25-year-old social media influencer and professional photographer from Colorado, knew little about the intricacies of LNG. He hadn’t even heard of CP2 yet. 

But he had hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers from previous environmental campaigns, where he encouraged viewers to sign petitions against oil and gas drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.

“I actually just learned the other day that the Department of Energy is planning whether or not they should build 20 new LNG export terminals along the Gulf of Mexico,” Haraus said in a Nov. 10 video.

Like many other viral TikToks, Haraus’s first videos were simple, talking straight to the camera with few edits.

Hiatt had been making some TikToks himself, posting videos of both the LNG terminals and the wildlife off the Gulf Coast in his county, and of community members sharing their stories of harm from LNG locally. Most of his videos got hundreds of views. 

But Haraus’s videos were regularly getting thousands, even hundreds of thousands of views. 

Later videos were thoroughly researched and edited, showing maps of Louisiana, footage of oil and gas infrastructure and a printed EPA report. In each, he called on viewers to sign the petition linked on his profile.

“He puts so much care into his videos and reviewing them. I would argue that he’s meant to do this work. He’s good at it. His heart is in it,” said Alyssa Portaro, another southwest Louisiana activist.

When Hiatt came across Haraus’s videos, he reached out right away. He sent footage of the area for Haraus to use, and in December, they organized a trip for Haraus to come in person to Cameron Parish.

They drove out on fisherman Travis Dardar’s boat to Calcasieu Point, the location of the already-operating Driftwood LNG terminal and three more proposed terminals.

“It’s the only place you can watch the sunset over a river at a public park, and not watch it set on top of a bunch of distillation towers with flares, smoke and all of it,” Hiatt said. “There’s river otters, bald eagles, pelicans and all these birds. It’s absolutely beautiful. And this is what we’re trading.”

Haraus recorded Dardar sharing about the struggles of fishermen in Cameron, whose families make up nearly the entire town’s population. Their catch last year was the worst ever, Dardar said, and the fishermen suffer from heart attacks, headaches and asthma.

They also visited Calcasieu Pass, met with Louisiana elders who have been fighting environmental racism and injustice for decades and visited nearby sites harmed by the fossil fuel industry, including the predominantly Black town of Mossville and an area of the Calcasieu River where a Conoco gas pipeline leak released 1.6 million pounds of ethylene dichloride into the water in 1994. As of 2016, crews were still working to clean the area.

“It’s just a terrible situation. I don’t know why you would want to add more industry to this area,” Haraus said in one video.

Throughout his campaign, Haraus posted TikToks celebrating the fast-growing list of signatures on petitions to stop LNG, from 30,000 on Nov. 19 to 350,000 on Dec. 21. 

However, the social media effort has its detractors. In a House hearing in February on the Biden administration’s pause, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) criticized the president for making decisions based on meetings with Haraus.

“I can’t believe I’m talking about this while we’re talking about LNG exports and national security,” Armstrong said. “Do you think it’s proper to have Mr. Haraus, a 25-year-old internet star, to be influencing such monumental national security and economic decisions?”

“He has a right to express his opinion,” responded witness Eric Cormier, the senior vice president of entrepreneurship and strategic initiatives at the Southwest Louisiana Chamber Economic Development Alliance. “All I would ask is that if anyone has anything to say about how southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas are impacted, come visit and talk to everyone.”

The TikTok platform itself is coming under scrutiny in Washington because of its ownership by a Beijing-based company, as the House passed a bill that would force its owner to sell or shut down the app. 

Local LNG industry remains strong

The long-established natural gas industry has numerous supporters among state politicians and residents alike.

CP2 will create more than 1,000 new permanent jobs and thousands of construction jobs in the area, then-Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards celebrated in a joint press release with Venture Global LNG. They said that direct new jobs will have average annual salaries of $120,000 plus benefits, but did not include an average salary for indirect or construction jobs.

“Residents in the Lake Charles MSA have historically supported industry since the early 1900s. These industries create jobs! The taxes generated allow our local governments to operate,” Kim Montie, director of the Cameron Port, said in a statement to the Medill News Service. “Not having these industries keeps people from living the American dream… financial independence.”

Over the years, different industries have come into Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes, bringing thousands of jobs with them as they build plants. But once construction is complete, those jobs go away, Hiatt said. 

Meanwhile, major hurricanes destroyed properties and raised insurance prices. Almost all Cameron residents, who could no longer afford to live in the area, moved further inland. Only fishing families, who depend on the water to make their living, remain in lower Cameron, Hiatt said.

“I’ve heard this said by Cameron residents, that these LNGs, when they come, maybe we’ll have a place for our kids to work, and they don’t have to move away,” Hiatt said. They hope the industry will revitalize the economy in lower Cameron, where there is now one gas station, one food truck and no grocery store. 

“But we already have the industry here, and people haven’t moved back,” Hiatt said. 

According to the U.S. Census, the populations of Cameron and Cameron Parish fell dramatically from 2000 to 2020 (from about 2,000 to 315 and from 10,000 to 5,000, respectively).

Continuing activism on the ground

Hiatt still viewed the campaign as a success, and it bodes well for future efforts using TikTok to influence federal policy.

As with TikTok trends, the widespread attention can leave as quickly as it comes. With or without the platform, local activists like Hiatt and Portaro will continue to focus on advocacy on the ground, holding community meetings and giving people knowledge and resources to take action.

Hiatt also noted that most people in the area rely on more traditional media outlets, like newspapers and cable news. It still takes engaging with people in person to build a movement pressuring local industry.

“We’ve been raised to think this is normal, this is what we have to put up with,” Hiatt said. “It doesn’t have to be this way, and it actually cannot continue down this pathway and have a life for young folks, who will endure the majority of the suffering. I don’t think there’s a person on this planet that wants something worse for their kids.”