Resisting Construction

How can community members stop a petrochemical facility before it is built, or prevent the expansion of an existing facility?

Understand the Process of Permitting

Proposed petrochemical facilities or expansion projects go through a lengthy permitting process before they are approved and construction begins. Companies or proponents may announce a new project or expansion before any permits are acquired. This is the time to organize the community.

Local, state, or federal government agencies require that petrochemical facilities obtain a variety of permits before they are constructed. These permits will have several phases: application, review, public comment, and final decision-making.

During the permit application phase, communities can learn what is being proposed and how it might impact them. Challenging the permit application is an opportunity for community members to speak up if they believe what is being proposed will cause harm to their community. Start by learning about how the process works.

What permits (or permissions) does a company need to obtain before building or expanding a petrochemical facility?

Local Permits (land use): Petrochemical companies often need land use approval from local decision makers to construct new facilities. Those land use permit processes often seek input from the community during a public comment period. Some examples of successful interventions include:

      • A Wanhua chemical manufacturing complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, was first announced in April 2017. Environmental advocacy groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, began studying Wanhua’s permit application after residents voiced concern about the cumulative environmental impact of plants in the area. In 2019, the application was sent back for further review, costs rose, and legal action was taken by local residents. As a result, Wanhua Chemical withdrew its land use application for a $1.25 billion plastics facility.

      • In January 2020, Wanhua submitted another permit application in Westwego, LA, further down the Mississippi River, which was subsequently denied by the Westwego City Council. The project proposal had also been previously denied by St. Gabriel Parish.

State Permits (such as for waste management and air quality): State-level environmental agencies will also often require permits for petrochemical facilities based on their own environmental requirements, including permits for air emissions, hazardous and solid waste, and water quality. These permit processes will either trigger a public hearing or opportunity for public comments where interested and affected members of the public can participate in environmental decisions.

      • For example, in 2021, the Washington State Department of Ecology denied a Shoreline Conditional Use permit for a methanol facility along the Kalama River that would have been the world’s largest fracked gas-to-methanol refinery, due to concern about a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions and inconsistencies with the state’s Shoreline Management Act. At the local level, the project had been approved by Cowlitz County.

Federal Permits (such as under the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Protection Act): Several federal government agencies are involved with permit processes related to petrochemical facilities, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Petrochemical facilities (and other stationary sources of air pollution) must obtain Title V operating permits from the EPA under the Clean Air Act. These permits also often include commenting periods on the applications before final decisions are made.

Federal agencies must also go through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process when making a decision on a Major Federal action, that is an action that may significantly affect the environment. According to regulation, "[a] Major Federal action includes actions with effects that may be major and that are potentially subject to federal control and responsibility... Actions include new and continuing activities, such as projects and programs entirely or partly financed, assisted, conducted, regulated, or approved by federal agencies; new or revised agency rules, regulations, plans, policies, or procedures; and legislative proposals." To learn more about the NEPA process, visit the EPA website.

What information is included in a typical permit application?

Each agency at the local, state, and federal level will have specific requirements for permit applications. Most will require basic information, such as:

  • Name of the proposed project

  • Company name and contact information

  • Physical location and description of the project

  • A map of the proposed project

  • The type of permit sought (new or existing facility)

  • Category of industry

  • Timeline of anticipated construction

  • Any other pending permits

  • Any previous citations or violations of environmental, health, and safety regulations

  • Designated company contact and their contact information

  • Projected emissions for the proposed project

  • Applicable regulations

Permits at the local, state, and federal level can be applied for and approved or denied simultaneously. In some instances, a company will have obtained federal permits before state approval.

  • For example, the Army Corps of Engineers approved federal Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Acts permits for the Kalama Methanol project in 2019, stating the project would not have a significant impact on the environment. A federal court subsequently vacated the permits in 2020 and the Washington State Department of Ecology denied the Shoreline Conditional Use Permit in 2021.

Get Involved in the Permitting Process

With a basic understanding of permitting processes, community members can leverage key moments to intervene in order to have the most impact on decision-making.

Because different permit processes can occur simultaneously, it can be overwhelming to address them all at once. It may be more beneficial to focus on state and local level permitting decisions, where the decision makers are closer to the project site and potentially to affected communities. These processes also typically have shorter deadlines for public input and appeal, and may take less time than a challenge at the federal level. In any case, tackling whichever actions occur first, early and often, is a strategic step towards preventing petrochemical projects that pose a threat to human health, human rights, and the environment.

In order to intervene in a given permitting process, start by obtaining information about pending permits. Review the application materials to identify information regarding likely or potential project impacts and planned prevention or mitigation measures, as well as other information that may be of particular interest to the affected community(ies). Applications can be lengthy and highly technical documents, so it may be useful to seek assistance from an organization with experience engaging in permitting challenges. See the “Additional Resources” section.

How can community members request information about a project or its permits?

Submit a Freedom of Information Request

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides the public with the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under FOIA unless it falls under an applicable exemption to protect certain interests, such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement. To find out how to make a FOIA request regarding information about petrochemical projects, visit the FOIA website.

At the state and local level, check the rules on how to file a public records request under applicable public information acts (also known as open records or freedom of information laws). For example, Pennsylvania has a Right-To-Know Request and Texas has a Public Information Act Request.

Contact Government Entities Involved in Permitting

  • Federal:

      • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - The EPA manages Clean Air Act permits, which are required for petrochemical facilities. Their responsibilities also include: air pollution, greenhouse gases, climate change, acid rain, pollution prevention, toxic chemicals, asbestos, lead, mercury, emergency management, clean energy, energy star, healthy schools, superfunds, brownfields, underground storage tanks, hydraulic fracturing, landfills, pesticides, hazardous and non-hazardous wastes.

      • US Army Corps of Engineers - The Army Corps manages construction and dredging permits for projects that affect the nation’s navigable waters. Their responsibilities also include: dam safety, flood risk, levee safety, formerly used defense sites, emergency operations, and wetlands mitigation.

      • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) - FERC primarily provides permits to certify pipeline projects. Their other responsibilities include: interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil, liquefied natural gas terminals, interstate natural gas pipeline, hydroelectric projects.

  • State:

  • Local:

      • Local counties, parishes, towns, and cities may also be involved and have information about any petrochemical projects. Attending and participating in city council or county commissioner meetings as much as possible is a great way to both get information and make the community's voice heard by local decision makers.

What are some key things to look for when reviewing permit application materials?

Both general and specific information can be crucial tools in challenging a project. Details that are revealing include:

    • Previous Violations - State and federal agencies have been successful, at times, in halting air and water pollution by denying permits for corporations’ new or existing facilities. There have been instances in which a company has been a known violator of environmental regulations, or has had a history of noncompliance, and such evidence was used to deny them permitting for new or existing facilities. There have also been instances in which a company has faced liability for injury — actual and potential — to people and communities and such evidence was used to enjoin them from future activities.

    • Environmental Assessment - A federal agency will prepare an Environmental Assessment (EA) that determines whether or not a federal action has the potential to cause significant environmental effects. These assessments take into account questions like:

        • Has a local agency already conducted an environmental assessment?

        • Is the assessment complete and sufficient?

        • Did the agency adequately review the permit application?

        • Did the assessment consider reasonable alternatives to either the project itself or the location of the project, including a “no action” (no project/no permit) alternative?

        • When reviewing these assessments, pay attention to the following:

            • Accuracy - Permit applications require that the technical information included is factual and correct.

                • Are there any inconsistencies in the application regarding how the project is described, what the project will do, or where operations will be located?

                • Are there statements in the application regarding the context, environment, or community(ies) affected by the project that do not match up with what community members know to be true of the environment?

                • Community members know their community best! Point out discrepancies and write about them in a public comment for local decision makers to see. This will build a record that could influence permitting decisions or be used to hold decision makers and the applicant corporation accountable in litigation down the line.

            • Completeness - Federal agencies have to provide sufficient evidence and analysis when determining the environmental impact of a proposed project.

                • Has the applicant made any claims that lack evidentiary support?

                • Community members need not take project proponents at their word. Demand the transparency and substantiation of claims that industry actors owe to people living where they operate or plan to operate. Hold project proponents to their burden to accurately and completely disclose their plans and how they may impact communities and the environment.

            • Scope and Context - Federal agencies must consider cumulative impacts.

                • Are there other similar or proposed chemical facilities in the community with pending permits?

                • Are there petrochemical or other industrial facilities already operating in the area?

                • Look in the application to see if the applicant has addressed any cumulative impacts that could affect the environment and public health. Even if the application states that this one proposed project may not cause any environmental damage on its own, there is a possibility that its addition to an already existing cluster of facilities will further harm the health and safety of the community and/or local ecosystems.

How can community members provide input about petrochemical facilities?

Once gaps or inaccuracies in permit documents have been identified, the community should voice these concerns by participating in the public comment process.

  • Writing public comments and providing public testimony during the permit review process are good ways for voices in the community to be heard by decision makers considering petrochemical project applications. Comments and testimony become part of the record and can help establish community members’ interest and standing in the case of litigation. For tips, templates, and examples of public comments, refer to these resources from the Public Comment Project and the Environmental Law Institute.

  • If the community needs more time for organizing public comments on a project, it's possible to ask for an extension of the comment period.

Target the Funding

Securing funding is another critical step for a petrochemical company before it can construct or expand a facility. This means that challenging financing can be a key avenue through which community members can resist a project that may threaten their rights and environment. Start by determining where the funding is coming from, then target those sources.

Who is funding the facility and its operators?

The Minderoo Foundation’s Plastic Waste Makers Index is a valuable resource to identify the top investors and banks funding plastic producers. While the data is not project-specific, it can help concerned community members identify which financial institutions could be contacted with questions about their financing plans for a given petrochemical or plastics project and/or information about concerns raised by the project, to discourage them from providing funding, should they be approached by the company(ies) involved. As awareness of the plastics crisis grows and momentum mounts for a global treaty on plastic pollution addressing the full lifecycle of plastic, investors are reportedly becoming more concerned about avoiding exposure to plastic production. Work is ongoing to better map financing flows in the petrochemical sector and increase advocacy to defund plastic pollution.

How can communities target a facility’s funding?

Public Financing:

  • Local decision makers often use tax incentives to bring industry into an area proposed for petrochemical facilities. These tax incentives and government subsidies can impact the viability of a proposed petrochemical project. For example:

      • West Virginia has passed bills offering tax credits to promote petrochemical investment in the state.

      • Pennsylvania has approved up to $600 million per petrochemical plant in tax credits over a 30-year period for new downstream investment.

      • Louisiana offers the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, which provides property tax abatement for up to 10 years on a manufacturer’s new investment and annual capitalized addition. It is the nation’s largest program providing state subsidies to corporations.

  • The federal government also provides numerous subsidies, both direct and indirect, to the fossil fuel industry, which is the upstream supplier of the petrochemical feedstocks used to make plastics. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute’s fact sheet on fossil fuel subsidies offers more detail.

  • Although tax incentives are critical to industry decision-making, a 2020 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that while there is some evidence of direct employment gains from attracting a firm, there is not strong evidence that “firm-specific tax incentives increase broader economic growth at the state and local level.”

  • Groups like Together Louisiana have opposed these tax incentives.

Private Financing:

  • There is ongoing work to expose and challenge the banks, funders, shareholders, and financiers of petrochemical facilities and producers.

  • Defunding campaigns (like’s Go Fossil Free) have resources on running campaigns to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, stop new fossil fuel infrastructure, and cut off the social license and financing for fossil fuels. Such tools could be deployed to shift financing out of petrochemical expansion and production of non-essential plastics.

Garner Support from International Human Rights Mechanisms

Whether local actions have been ignored, or the campaign needs a boost, international human rights mechanisms provide another avenue to elevate community concerns and further pressure decision makers. To garner international attention and scrutiny of government or corporate conduct that adversely affects human rights, individuals, communities, and organizations can submit information to the Special Procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC), human rights experts (special rapporteurs), and expert bodies appointed by the United Nations, or to UN human rights treaty bodies, responsible for monitoring countries’ implementation of their obligations under human rights treaties.

Such submissions to UN Special Procedures can:

  • draw the attention of governments and others to alleged human rights violations or threats of violations;

  • ask that the violations be prevented, stopped, investigated, or that remedial action be taken; and

  • raise public awareness on individual and group cases, as well as legislative and policy developments they have addressed in a given period.

      • For example, in the campaign challenging the construction of the Formosa Plastics Group's proposed megacomplex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, submission of a letter to the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance by Loyola law students led UN human rights experts to denounce environmental racism in Cancer Alley.

  • Visit the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner website to learn how to submit a complaint about a human rights violation.

  • Further details are provided in CIEL’s overview of the reporting procedure of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies (HRTBs), which describes the different stages of the process and opportunities for civil society to provide input.

For further information about how to raise concerns about human rights impacts, including harms associated with petrochemical and plastics production, before UN human rights treaty bodies, see CIEL’s overview of the reporting procedure of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies (HRTBs). That document describes the different stages of the process by which countries’ compliance with their treaty obligations are periodically reviewed by the treaty bodies, and opportunities for civil society to provide input.

Visit the website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) to learn how to submit a complaint about a human rights violation.

For more information, check out the US Human Rights Network’s list of resources available for reporting international human rights violations.