Shallow-water fishing trips, dolphin-cove sightseeing tours, bird-watching excursions, sunning and playing on South Padre’s velvety sand—these are some of the thrills that draw more than a million tourists each year to the poorest metro region of the United States, making tourism and eco-tourism the biggest economic driver here at the Rio Grande Valley’s southern edge.
Chances are that any San Antonio resident reading this story has visited South Padre at least once, and if you’ve been there once, you’ve probably returned. Home to just 3,000 permanent residents, SPI offers first-world amenities such as restaurants, bars, retail shops and night clubs, yards away from world-class sport fishing, bird-watching and beachcombing. Unlike Corpus Christi and Galveston beaches, South Padre Island, its bays and estuaries, remain relatively pristine. But perhaps not for long.
Ten miles southwest, sharing a coastline and an economy, sits Brownsville, the nation’s poorest city, home to 200,000 residents. Local politicians and energy industrialists are busy pushing a new fossil fuel economic-development scheme in this small border city, this time in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG–natural gas that has been chilled and condensed so that it can be easily shipped over long distances.
Energy companies are looking for Texas ports where rent is cheap and space is copious, hoping to build Leviathan complexes of smokestacks, refrigeration chambers and sewers that will produce LNG for export to China and beyond. Because Brownsville’s deep-water channel is edged by plenty of inexpensive land, four LNG conglomerates are trying to set up shop in this coastal zone, which is populated by brown pelicans, ocelots, sea turtles, dolphins and a host of other endangered and protected wildlife. There are now more than 30 proposed LNG export terminals in the U.S., though the only one under construction is in Sabine Pass, Louisiana. In Texas, LNG terminals are also being proposed in Freeport and Corpus Christi. The projects must go through a lengthy review and permitting process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approves permits to export LNG to countries that are part of the World Trade Organization. The four proposed Brownsville facilities— Texas LNG, Annova LNG, Gulf Coast LNG and NextDecade LLC—have yet to clear Department of Energy and other federal hurdles that would make them candidates for a FERC permit.
Liquefying natural gas is a dirty and unsightly enterprise. In Brownsville, the proposed LNG facilities would dump millions of gallons of heated effluent each day into one of the healthiest shallow-water bays in the world. The plants’ 500-foot flaring towers—which release mercury, hydrogen sulfide, helium, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and other impurities from the natural gas—would burn a couple of miles downwind from the state’s most popular beach. Local environmental groups estimate that air pollution will quadruple in the Brownsville-South Padre Island metroplex, a 10-mile stretch of coastline, residential neighborhoods and small businesses that may soon sit under the brown-cloud haze of pollution already familiar to residents of industrialized regions like Corpus Christi, Galveston and Houston. The purification and refrigeration process for LNG is so energy-intensive that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions for this region would be staggering.
The Energy Department has restructured the LNG permitting process to require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to prepare an EPA impact statement for each proposed facility. Last week, the EPA questioned FERC’s dismissal of the impact a Corpus Christi LNG facility would have on minority neighborhoods. Although the EPA can raise concerns about an environmental review prepared by FERC, ultimately the commission can issue a permit over the EPA’s objections. FERC’s decisions can be appealed to the Council of Environmental Quality, but it’s a rarely used and difficult process that requires objectors to show there was a misstep in the review process.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Leading the charge to bring LNG to Brownsville is U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela. The first-term Congressman is part of a trend: Texas Democrats who’ve broken with a broader caucus that’s against fast-tracking oil and natural gas exports, a caucus composed of Dems like Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who has warned that, “[LNG] exports could cost consumers and businesses tens of billions of dollars in higher energy bills.” Vela is one of seven Texas representatives who voted last month to approve construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and he has consistently voted for Republican-sponsored bills that are designed to fast track the export of LNG. He’s brokered deals between political subdivisions and companies hoping to ship LNG from the Port of Brownsville, helping arrange more than a billion dollars of infrastructure on the taxpayers’ dime. These construction projects include deepening the Brownsville ship channel, building an 800-megawatt power plant and constructing an expansive network of roads and rail lines intended to connect the coming and going of materials, personnel and machinery. In return, the new industry promises short-lived jobs for a handful of local workers, and plenty of pollution.
Vela did not respond to repeated interview requests, but one of his first official acts as Congressman was to submit an op-ed to his district’s daily newspapers titled “Exporting liquid natural gas would benefit Texas.” In the column, Vela describes a new Texas economy inspired by the state’s history as a powerfully lucrative place to extract fossil fuels from the earth. Vela is far from an outlier. A host of professors, EDC directors, chamber of commerce presidents, mayors, county commissioners and other South Texas leaders have joined the booster committee. In a letter of support for one of the energy conglomerates trying to build an LNG facility at the Port of Brownsville (one of more than 30 similar letters, often containing the same verbatim phrases) Carlos Cascos, the Cameron County judge recently tapped by Greg Abbott for Secretary of State, writes: “I support the Gulf Coast LNG project because of the significant job creation and positive economic impact it will have in our community. … the project will help the Cameron County community by creating thousands of jobs … all while promoting clean natural gas energy here and around the world.” If LNG is produced at the Port of Brownsville, there will be considerable and measurable economic benefit, mostly in the creation of temporary construction jobs for building pipelines. The actual construction of liquefication facilities—which require the bulk of energy company investment—wouldn’t happen in Brownsville, or even on American soil. Most of these facilities would be built in South Korea and elsewhere, then shipped to Brownsville. The real question for constituents isn’t how many jobs might be gained through LNG development, but how many existing jobs in the eco-tourism industry and how much property value, too, might be lost.
Bill Berg is a retired chair of the UT-Brownsville Engineering Department and one of several dozen local activists who are raising questions about the dangers of LNG development to the Brownsville-South Padre Island coastline. “If the LNG companies are promising jobs, we want to know which jobs and at what pay rate,” Berg said.
Nowhere in Vela’s op-ed, or in the dozens of interviews he’s subsequently given on the topic, has he mentioned any of the potential drawbacks of LNG to the local economy. He doesn’t mention the millions of gallons per day of treated water that will be dumped near the saltwater inlets for the Bahia Grande—27,000 acres of land and 10,000 acres of estuary. It’s the largest estuary restoration project in North America, home to tens of thousands of birds on their migrations to and from Canada and Mexico. The lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the top 10 birding destinations in the U.S., according to numerous rankings, and a stop at the Bahia Grande during a late October dawn demonstrates why.
You wouldn’t build a municipal dump next to the Alamo. And bringing LNG to estuaries near South Padre Island makes just as little sense. SPI is a tiny town that annually generates $6.4 million in property taxes, $6.5 million in hotel-motel taxes and is responsible for $1 billion in economic development and more than 20,000 jobs in an otherwise economically deflated job-poor region. All of SPI’s tourism-related jobs aren’t necessarily great jobs. But some are. Quite a few restaurateurs, boat shop owners, eco-tour entrepreneurs and real estate investors here clear easily more than $200,000 annually. It’s doubtful one LNG job will pay that much money. Though the energy companies tout the creation of thousands of jobs, at most only about 500 of those jobs per LNG plant will be permanent. And in a volatile energy market they’re not necessarily long-term jobs. Unspoken by the industrialists and pro-LNG politicians is the simple truth that if the U.S. government permits these LNG export terminals, Asia and Europe will get America’s natural gas, corporate offices in Houston and Dallas will get the profits, and the Gulf Coast will get the pollution.
A LOSER EITHER WAY
This year, several U.S. cities voted to ban hydraulic fracturing because of health concerns, water and air pollution, and earthquakes. But South Texas leaders are still trumpeting it as the next big thing since big oil. Websites, television commercials and pamphlets promoting the use of natural gas don’t mention that methane—the fossil fuel most associated with hydraulic fracturing—is the supreme greenhouse gas, 21 times more successful at trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide. We’re assured that methane burns much cleaner than coal or oil, which is true, but in its raw state it’s much more destructive to the environment than either. U.S. fracking companies haven’t done a good job of keeping natural gas from escaping into the atmosphere. NASA satellites show a cloud of methane floating over most of the central United States. Perhaps the biggest objection raised by opponents to LNG is that the commodity totally obliterates the potential to use natural gas to reduce global warming, even if fracking operators get well and transportation leaks under control. Federal studies have estimated that in total greenhouse gas emissions, shipping fracked LNG to Asia is worse for the atmosphere than burning coal.
But even if you’re an unmitigated fan of natural gas—even if you believe that the world’s recent unprecedented heat waves, blizzards, tornadoes, floods, hail storms, cyclones, hurricanes and more are part of a cyclical, naturally occurring weather pattern—you might be wary of the plans to export LNG. These companies are trying to lock in foreign buyers while the market is favorable. Most foreign countries haven’t advanced hydraulic fracturing to the level it’s achieved in Texas and other U.S. fields, which are collectively producing a surplus of natural gas. But there’s a short window of opportunity to sell natural gas overseas while prices abroad are high and U.S. supplies are bountiful. Within five years, China, Russia and other countries that are currently paying top dollar for imported natural gas will have increased their own hydraulic fracturing capabilities. Depending on the market and American reserves, the United States could find itself importing natural gas at the highest market prices. Chris Nelder, an energy analyst who blogs at getreallist.com and who contributes to a healthy list of major media on energy topics, has catalogued public misconceptions about natural gas. He’s found that their sources are often industry press releases.
In an article for Slate, Nelder points out that the projection of a 100-year supply of domestic natural gas was first found in a 2011 report by the Potential Gas Committee, an organization of petroleum scientists and engineers. That claim, found in one press release, continues to fuel misconceptions that exporting natural gas will not raise costs for American consumers, because America has an inexhaustible supply. Nelder argues that extremely optimistic modeling might project a century-long supply, but based on the United States’ current usage there is just an 11-year supply of proven reserves. The 11-year estimate is fairly consistent with federal projections, which estimate a 16-year supply. And these models don’t take into account the companies now applying for permits to ship natural gas abroad. In that case, 16 years might look more like 4 years, or fewer. Exporting natural gas is potentially such a bad economic idea for the U.S. that large companies such as Alcoa and Dow Chemical are opposed to the unchecked export of LNG because a shortage would drive up costs for their businesses.
SEEDS OF A REVOLT
In a small stucco and adobe art gallery in downtown Brownsville, college students, graphic designers, retired teachers and others concerned about the implications of LNG discuss such nuances. They’ve been meeting monthly here here since early 2014, amid art created by the painters and photographers of south Texas. A steel stretch of the border wall towers across the street. Jim Chapman, a member of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, helped found this group of humble but obstinate stalwarts known as Save RGV from LNG. They’ve printed bumper stickers, published news articles, launched a website and helmed information booths at festivals to provide Valley residents with the facts about LNG that energy industrialists and politicians aren’t sharing. They also regularly attend public meetings at the Brownsville Navigation District, the political subdivision that owns the port and its land, voicing their objection to LNG-based development during public comment sessions, and keeping an eye on the dockets. “The Rio Grande Valley has tremendous environmentally sensitive resources that our economy depends on. We need to be protective, to be mindful … we need to be good stewards,” Chapman said.
While no South Padre Island or Rio Grande Valley politician has publicly criticized LNG development along this stretch of coast, South Padre Island City Councilwoman Julee LaMure has cast doubt on the feasibility of LNG exporters because of regulatory issues.
"The fact is that our region provides immense challenges to an exporter with regards to regulatory issues because of our delicate ecosystem," LaMure said. "Eco-tourism is critically important to the economic well-being of the island, and our sister city, Port Isabel, relies heavily on fishing and shrimping to support their economy. One accident could potentially be devastating to both communities."
With SPI’s property values dwarfing others in the Rio Grande Valley, and with a tourist economy that the entire region’s chambers of commerce and economic development entities hang their hats on, the power of South Padre Island to affect the LNG dialogue—and outcome—on this stretch of Texas coastline is extreme.
Tourists and condominium owners, however, seem quick to notice and willing to speak about the threat to SPI’s clean air and water. Eddie Bills owns a residential electric company near Fort Worth, the epicenter of Texas’s natural gas boom. He spends a week or two most summers on the Texas coast with his wife and four children, renting condominiums, buying beach gear, taking eco-tours and enjoying the restaurants.
“In the last few years, I've spent time in Corpus Christi, in Galveston and on South Padre Island. One thing that really jumps out about South Padre is the clean sand and the fresh air,” Bills said.
“Galveston is too close to the refineries. Corpus is an over-trafficked highway to the water's crowded edge. South Padre has the best mix of sun, sand and air…. As someone who lives near Fort Worth—ground zero of the Texas natural gas industry—I would hate to see the natural richness of SPI compromised by the water and air pollution folks have to stomach up here.”
Correction: Friday, December 12, 11:19 a.m.
Due to an internal error, a previous version of this story was published in the December 10 issue of the Current.