Gulf of Mexico
Flora Gunderson a Long Island Village neighbor who opposes liquefied natural gas plants in the Rio Grande Valley area on Friday, March 22, 2019, in Port Isabel.Photo: Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The Great LNG Debate: A growing industry faces stiff, organized opposition in the Rio Grande Valley

PORT ISABEL— Flora Gunderson’s eyes filled with tears and her hands shook as she recalled the March 2005 day when she nearly lost her husband.

That’s when a vapor cloud ignited at the BP Refinery in Texas City, sparking an explosion that killed 15 people and injured 180 others. Her husband, George, who worked there, only escaped after ducking between two trucks, where, by a stroke of luck, the force of the blast sent the door of a portable toilet above him, shielding him from shrapnel and burning debris.

Those memories have come flooding back to the Gundersons, who now live in a palm tree-lined retirement community along the coastal waters of the subtropical Rio Grande Valley. Just three miles down the Brownsville Ship Channel, three companies are proposing liquefied natural gas export terminals that the Gundersons and others fear would not only pose health and safety risks to nearby residents, but also change the character of the sunny seaside community, where pelicans dive for fish and fresh and salt air blows across porches.

“I don’t want this place turned into Pasadena,” said Gunderson, referring to the Houston area city dominated by refineries and chemical plants. “I don’t want that for this area. I don’t want to lose all this to their greed.”

The Gundersons and their neighbors are part of the fierce opposition to proposed LNG plants that are dividing residents of the impoverished border region along the familiar lines of growth versus quality of life, jobs versus the environment and change versus preservation. Those fault lines have taken a particularly sharp edge in this debate, with the nearly $40 billion that the LNG projects promise to invest juxtaposed against one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the country, where nearly one in three people live in poverty and the unemployment rate, 4.7 percent in April, is the highest in Texas.

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Mario Lozoya, CEO of Greater Brownsville Incentives Corp., a workforce development agency, believes the projects could help lift both people and communities in the Rio Grande Valley out of poverty. Lozoya is developing training programs to give local workers the skills needed to get some of the estimated 7,000 construction jobs and then move into high-paying occupations once the LNG terminals are complete.

“These projects bring demand for a different kind of skilled worker that pays more than the typical welder or the typical electrician,” Lozoya said. “It’s an opportunity for us to create skilled workers there that can assume the jobs of tomorrow — real 21st century jobs.”

LNG debate

The projects are part of the LNG boom along the Gulf Coast, driven by the flood of natural gas from Texas shale plays and growing global demand for cleaner-burning fuels. The Port of Brownsville has become a hotspot for LNG developers largely because it holds some of the last available deepwater property along the Gulf Coast.

Three companies — Texas LNG and NextDecade LNG, both of Houston, and Annova LNG, a unit of the Chicago energy company Exelon — began filing for federal permits in March 2015. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to issue a final decision on Texas LNG’s permit on June 13; final decisions for the other companies should come next month.

Even before the companies filed for permits, plans to build LNG export terminals among pristine white sand dunes and coastal wetlands sparked outrage among environmentalists, worried about irreversible damage natural resources and habitat; Native Americans, concerned about pipelines violating ancient burial grounds and sacred lands; and shrimpers and fishermen, anxious about hundreds of tankers that would crowd waterways. By May 2014, Rio Grande Valley opponents united under the group called Save RGV from LNG.

“People here care deeply about this coastline,” said Rebekah Hinojosa, a Brownsville organizer with the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy group. “We have a strong connection to it. People love their wild lands. There’s a long history of support for nature and support for local businesses like fishing guides and shrimpers. There’s a lot of heart in this fight.”

Early opposition efforts centered around social media and email alerts to mobilize people to attend public meetings and file comments against the projects, which they did by the thousands. Opponents also persuaded Point Isabel Independent School District board members to reject tax breaks for Annova LNG and NextDecade’s Rio Grande LNG project in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

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Texas LNG did not seek tax breaks, but Hinojosa and others traveled to Paris in October 2017, where they helped convinced French bank BNP Paribas to sever its ties to the shale oil and gas industry and end its role as a financial adviser for the Brownsville project.

Much of the opposition to the plants has focused on the impact of the developments on three endangered species — two wildcats, the ocelot and jaguarundi, and the aplomado falcon. Environmental reviews by FERC officials gave the three LNG plants the green light as individual projects, but noted that their combined traffic, light, noise and habitat fragmentation would have “permanent and significant” impact on the ocelot and jaguarundi.

Environmental discrimination

Opponents say the LNG proposals follow a familiar pattern for energy projects, such as refineries and chemical plants. They would be located in some of poorest areas.

Residents of a nearby colonia called Laguna Heights formed a group named “Vecinos Para el Bienestar de la Comunidad Costera,” or “Neighbors for the Well-Being of the Coastal Community” to fight the projects. Nearly half of the 3,500 people in the unincorporated community were born outside of the United States, more than 80 percent speak Spanish and nearly one-third of households live on less than $15,000 per year.

Located a few miles northwest of the plants, Laguna Heights residents worry the group fear that the sea breeze would carry pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds into their community.

“Some of the members of the group moved here after spending parts of their childhood in industrial areas of Mexico where pollution is rampant and egregious,” the group’s attorney, Kathryn Youker, said. “They came here to escape that.”

Most residents of Laguna Heights work in the hotels or restaurants of South Padre Island and Port Isabel. They not only worry about their children being exposed to pollution, but also how the plants might affect the local tourism industry, which according to a 2017 study generates $343 million in visitor spending and employs 3,500 people.

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“If we have an ugly and nasty beach,” said Terrie Nuñez, a real estate agent whose husband’s family owns a local restaurant, “who’s going to want to come here.”

Shrimpers and fishermen have their own worries. Lela Burnell Korab, a third-generation shrimper whose family owns six boats, said many have joined a group called Shrimpers and Fisherman of the RGV to voice concerns about the impact on their harvests from increased ship traffic and waves created by massive tankers. If all three terminals win approval, more than 500 LNG tankers a year would stream through the Brownsville Ship Channel.

Another key concern is the U.S. Coast Guard would implement safe harbor provisions, requiring all other ships to remain docked while LNG tankers travel through the channel and keeping shrimpers and fishermen from their catch, putting more pressure on a local fishing and shrimping fleet that has shrunk to 100 boats from 450 in 1970.

“I would like to see more of a game plan in place before they get constructed,” Korab said.

Political support

The projects have the backing of Texas political leaders, including U.S. Senator John Cornyn, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, who say the terminals would bring much needed investment and jobs to the area and benefit the broader Texas economy, bringing billions of dollars into the state and supporting jobs in oil and gas fields, petrochemical plants and office towers.

Global LNG demand is expected to double over the next two decades — to 800 metric tons in 2040 from from 400 million metrics tons in 2019 — as countries around the world seek cleaner burning fuels to address climate change and pollution, according to the consulting firm Accenture Strategy. Texas, producing record volumes of natural gas, is positioned to benefit from surging demand as LNG processing and export complexes are developed.

For example, revenues at the nation’s leading LNG exporter, Cheniere Energy of Houston, jumped 37 percent last year to $2.4 billion, fueling continued expansion of the company’s terminals in Louisiana and Corpus Christi and creating more jobs. Eduardo Campirano, chief executive of the Port of Brownsville, said if just one of the three proposed LNG terminals are built, it would prove transformative for a region, where high paying jobs are scarce and investment on that scale rare.

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“If all three projects successfully meet their requirements, we are looking at a combined investment of $38.75 billion plus more than 7,000 construction jobs for at least a decade,” Campirano said. “This will transform the economic landscape of the Rio Grande Valley by creating significant investment and job opportunities for our region.”

Texas LNG officials did not reply to a request for comment, but previously said the company stands behind its project and the permitting process. In a nod to environmentalists, the company plans to use electric motors to reduce noise and pollution.

Annova LNG reiterated plans to use electric motors and build a 25-foot tall concrete wall to reduce light and noise from the plant. Annova also moved its proposed site further east to create a 185-acre wildlife corridor.

NextDecade has pledged to plant butterfly and pollinator-friendly wildflowers along the 138-mile route of a proposed pipeline to move gas from the Agua Dulce hub near Corpus Christi.

Safe Neighbors

Steve Everley, a spokesman for industry-funded Texans for Natural Gas, called the proposed plants a “once in a generation opportunity” for the economy of the Rio Grande Valley and the state.

Citing LNG export terminals already in operation in Cameron Parish, La., Corpus Christi and in Cove Point, Md., as examples, Everley said the proposed Brownsville plants can safely coexist with neighbors.

“It’s not theoretical,” Everley said. “We already have data points that prove that LNG export terminals can coexist with the communities in which they operate.”

sergio.chapa@chron.com

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