On the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, about an hour upstream from New Orleans, the outline of Nucor Corp.’s new $750 million iron-processing plant is rising between fields of sugar cane and sweet gum trees.
Surveying the facility from the road, Michael Eades, president of Ascension Economic Development Corp., says it’s part of a wave of investment lured by low natural gas prices to this stretch of Louisiana’s industrial riverfront. Companies such as Westlake Chemical Corp., Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. and Methanex Corp. have projects in the works. Ormet Corp. reopened an alumina refinery last year, bringing back 250 jobs.
That would provide a boost to a U.S. manufacturing sector that has lost 5.12 million jobs since 2001 and become the focus of a national debate over how to revive factory employment. Manufacturers have added 532,000 jobs since January 2010 as the economy started to recover, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
Verleger envisages a virtuous cycle of economic growth as producers, flush with cash from oil and gas sales, will buy more equipment and put more people to work, while low-cost energy puts cash back in consumers’ pockets, stimulating spending.
Environmentalists say cheap fossil fuels come with a high price, including air pollution that can cause respiratory difficulties, and drinking water contamination from hydrofracturing, or fracking, in which a high-pressure stream of fluid is shot underground to crack rock and release hydrocarbons. Lower gas and oil costs have also undermined investment in power sources that produce less carbon dioxide, including wind, solar and nuclear, raising concern that climate change will accelerate.
Eades gestures toward construction trailers parked on the site where Vancouver-based Methanex said in July that it will reconstruct a plant moved from Chile, white, football field- sized domes that will store Nucor’s iron ore, and chutes that carry bauxite over the Mississippi River levy into Ormet’s rust-colored plant.