Blowout: Inside America's energy gamble

In key vote, federal regulators OK controversial South Texas gas export facilities

A coalition of residents and indigenous and environmental groups has rallied against a trio of proposed terminals to export liquefied natural gas from the Port of Brownsville. Thursday's vote puts the terminals closer to final approval.

A vessel from Hong Kong in the Corpus Christi ship channel.

Federal energy regulators on Thursday greenlighted three liquefied natural gas projects proposed for the Rio Grande Valley that a coalition of local residents and indigenous and environmental groups have fervently rallied against.

After several years of review, the three-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted to authorize permit applications to build LNG terminals at the Port of Brownsville that would receive natural gas produced in West and South Texas and convert it to liquid form so it can be exported around the world. Commissioners also approved a permit application from Houston-based Cheniere Energy to increase production capacity at its existing LNG terminal at the Port of Corpus Christi.

The Brownsville projects are known as Texas LNG Brownsville, Rio Grande LNG and Annova LNG. The first is a venture of an independent energy company by the same name. Rio Grande LNG is owned by Houston-based NextDecade, and Annova LNG is owned by out-of-state companies including Exelon, Black & Veatch, and Kiewit.

The projects still must secure other permits from state and federal energy and environmental regulatory agencies before they can break ground, but Thursday's vote was a crucial step.

"The Texas LNG project will bring economic stimulus to the surrounding communities including construction jobs, permanent family wage jobs, tax revenues, and opportunities to support local businesses," Texas LNG said in a written statement. "By delivering clean, safe, low-cost Texas natural gas energy to our customers around the world, Texas LNG can contribute to a cleaner global environment and improve the standard of living for working families in the area."

But the vote by the three commissioners, all appointed by President Donald Trump, was not unanimous. Commissioner Richard Glick, who served as general counsel for Democratic lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee before joining the commission, strongly dissented before the vote, calling the basis for approving the projects unreasonable and disturbing.

Glick said the commission's environmental impact assessments didn't adequately take into account the significant amount of greenhouse gases the projects would emit and the impact they would have on climate change. The Rio Grande LNG project in particular will emit more than 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, which Glick said "strikes me as a lot."

The assessments found that all three projects would have "significant adverse impacts" on endangered species like the ocelot, jagarundi and aplomado falcon. But while the courts have ruled that federal agencies must balance environmental impacts with economic benefits, in this case, Glick said, "We don’t do anything with it. ... We just say it’s significant and move on.”

He also said the commission should take into account that the projects are slated to be built in economically disadvantaged areas, where people can't afford to hire attorneys to fight against air and water pollution and other impacts.

But Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee, who voted in favor of all three projects, praised commission staff for working "to ensure that we don’t miss this crucial period for developing an export market for U.S. gas" and touted the commission's approval this year of a variety of similar initiatives, calling it "a monumental achievement."

The Brownsville and Corpus Christi projects are part of a historic buildout of oil and gas infrastructure in the United States as it becomes a top exporter of both fuels. Texas, home to the most prolific oilfield in the country, is at the epicenter of the building boom.

A 2018 review of corporate records by the Center for Public Integrity and The Texas Tribune found that more than 80 plants, terminals and other projects are in the works or planned up and down the state’s Gulf Coast in the wake of federal policy changes that lifted decades-old restrictions on crude oil exports and also made it easier to ship out natural gas. Much of the new infrastructure will be at the ports of Houston and Corpus, which are battling to become the country’s No. 1 starting point for moving crude to other nations.

But many projects are also slated for less industrialized — and more touristy — areas of the Texas coast like South Padre Island, where many residents and local officials fear that increased industrial activity will ultimately drive away the fishermen and beachgoers who prop up the local economy.

The Brownsville projects are expected to bring nearly $40 billion worth of investment but have faced intense resistance from a coalition of environmental groups, local residents, shrimpers and fishermen, and members of an indigenous tribe who formed a nonprofit called Save RGV From LNG. In a recent statement, the group said the construction of the three projects "would bulldoze pristine lands near South Padre Island to build flammable pipelines, storage tanks, and smoking flare stacks or ground flares that would pollute nearby communities and irreparably destroy the habitat of the endangered ocelot."

Members of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe fear the destruction of a federally recognized historic site sacred to the tribe that houses burial grounds and the remains of a village.

A statement by the Texas Chapter of the Sierra Club released after the vote stressed that the projects still must receive a variety of other state and federal permits, with all three still requiring approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s disappointing that FERC failed to recognize that these proposed fracked gas facilities would be a disaster for the Rio Grande Valley, but today’s approval is far from the end of the fight,” Sierra Club Brownsville organizer Rebekah Hinojosa said in the statement. “Our communities are united in opposition to these dirty, dangerous projects, and we will continue to pursue all avenues — from the courts to pressuring financial institutions — to ensure they are never built.”

Thursday’s vote came a day after a state administrative law judge took testimony from some Save RGV From LNG members in opposition to a state air quality permit for the Texas LNG project. The judge ruled in September that officials from the city of Port Isabel, residents of the Long Island Village retirement community and members of a Laguna Heights community group called Vecinos Para el Bienestar de la Comunidad Costera all had legal standing to testify.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality already has approved a state air quality permit for Rio Grande LNG but has yet to do so for Texas LNG or Annova LNG.

A ruling isn't expected for several weeks.

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