Texas Indigenous leaders target banks in fight against natural gas export terminals in Rio Grande Valley
Since Congress lifted the U.S. oil export ban in 2015, three proposed LNG export facilities have fallen victim to the protest. But the war in Ukraine is an impetus for two remaining projects.
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When Juan Mancias was a child, his grandmother told him the story her parents told her, of the place at the Great River’s end. All good things ended up there, she said, carried from the high deserts across 1,000 miles to the sea, where they spilled across a vast delta, teeming with life.
There, Mancias’ grandmother told him, the first woman was born from all the good things that washed down the river. And there, more than 60 years later, developers now want to build two export terminals, one priced at over $15 billion, to sell fracked Texas gas on international markets.
Mancias, chair of the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe, has spent his last year engaged in a global campaign to thwart the liquified natural gas, or LNG, facilities proposed for his people’s sacred site. Supported by the Sierra Club, a coalition of Indigenous leaders and local organizers have traveled Europe lobbying customers and funders that developers need for their buildout in the Rio Grande Valley, a historically marginalized zone along the Mexican border in Texas.
It’s not just a legendary paradise for Mancias’ people; it also holds the remains of an ancient village, Garcia Pasture, dubbed by the World Monuments Fund as “one of America’s premier archaeological sites.”
“When you steal the land, you’re stealing us. And you’re taking away our identity, because you fence it off and you don’t allow us into the land where our ancestors are buried, where we remember our ceremonies and rituals,” said Mancias, 68.
Since the fracking boom, developers of Texas shale gas have eyed undeveloped patches along the Gulf Coast for massive terminals to liquify and export the gas on ocean-going tankers.
The campaign has managed for years to thwart financing agreements, dissuade committed customers, and cause one terminal’s cancellation and years of delays on the remaining two. The COVID-19 slump in energy prices helped the case. But the war in Ukraine has energized markets again and empowered projects’ search for funders.
“The situation in Ukraine is the latest attempt by investors to justify LNG export terminals that are unnecessary, uneconomic, and unwanted,” said a new report by the Sierra Club’s Lower Rio Grande Valley Group, released Tuesday. “Even as banks pledged to align their lending and investment with a low carbon future, they continue to finance fracked gas around the world.”
The International Energy Agency has said that new investments in fossil fuels must end immediately for the world to meet its goals on carbon emissions reductions. According to the new Sierra Club report, the gas pipeline and two export terminals proposed for the Rio Grande delta would produce as much carbon as 40.4 million cars per year.
Two export terminals are proposed in adjacent green lots in Cameron County at the Port of Brownsville, which doesn’t currently have a petroleum sector (but has hosted Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starbase since about 2015): Rio Grande LNG, owned by Houston-based NextDecade and priced at $15.6 billion; and Texas LNG, owned by Houston-based Glenfarne Group. Both were initially slated to begin operations next year, but both are still seeking financing to begin construction and remain years away from completion.
NextDecade, owner of Rio Grande LNG, did not respond to a request for comment sent Friday. The company has said the Rio Grande facility would produce “a lower carbon intensive” liquified natural gas through a combination of carbon capture technology, net-zero electricity and “responsibly sourced gas.”
Glenfarne Energy Transition, owner of Texas LNG, said in a statement that the terminal’s “green” design uses electric motor drives and renewable energy instead of gas turbines, which would make it one of the lowest-emitting LNG facilities in the world, and that it would create 1,500 construction jobs and 100 permanent full-time positions.
“Texas LNG has demonstrated a commitment to having a positive impact,” the company said. “This is positively recognized and supported by public officials, investors, and banks.”
Three major banks remain behind efforts to develop the Rio Grande delta: Macquarie Capital, Credit Suisse and Société Générale (which this year announced an end to fracked gas investments but excluded Texas LNG).
“The financial industry is the key pillar of support for the fossil industry,” said Ruth Breech with the Rainforest Action Network, who contributed financial analysis to the new report.
Two banks have backed out in recent years: SMBC Group and BNP Paribas. The Port of Cork in Ireland nixed an agreement to build an import terminal for South Texas gas. One proposed terminal at the Port of Brownsville, Anova, canceled its plans last year. The remaining two are still seeking commitments on funding.
The delay stands out as a major accomplishment for organizers in the Rio Grande Valley, a historically marginalized zone on the nation’s periphery that has long fought against exploitative development.
“This is significant. The only time where we’ve seen this level of movement from financial institutions was at Standing Rock,” said Breech, referring to the withdrawal of funders from the Dakota Access Pipeline following explosive protests from Indigenous communities in 2016. “[Rio Grande Valley organizers’] work has been awesome and truly inspiring to the international community working on finance.”
In order to develop a massive industrial complex like those needed for LNG export, developers assemble financial advisers, often major global banks. Those advisors support the project through planning and permitting, meanwhile assembling other partners to finance construction. Eventually, they sign an FID, or Final Investment Decision, meaning the project is clear to proceed.
In the Valley, the story started around 2015, when Congress lifted the oil export ban. As the South Texas fracking boom matured, hundreds of wells in the Eagle Ford Shale were connected to pipelines designed to transport the gas they produced to coastal terminals.
That’s when Rebekah Hinojosa, a fresh college grad and substitute teacher, started fighting proposals for five terminals to load liquified natural gas onto ocean-going freighters at the Port of Brownsville on the Rio Grande delta.
Hinojosa has great-great-great-grandparents buried near the Rio Grande. For all her life she’d been aware of environmental injustice in the Valley. Her grandfather worked at a local pesticide plant where she said workers were doused in chemicals; many died of cancer. The nearby Donna Reservoir is a superfund site, as is the site of a former Agent Orange plant.
“There’s a history here of big companies coming in and exploiting our community, coming in with the same broken promises of job and money. In reality they just come in to pollute and use our people as cheap labor,” said Hinojosa, 31, Gulf Coast representative for the Sierra Club since 2016. “I was sick of that history over and over again.”
She soon became part of a burgeoning movement, connecting local activists and Indigenous communities with outside supporters like the Sierra Club. In 2015, the seaside cities of Laguna Vista, Port Isabel and South Padre Islands passed resolutions against the buildout plans. Two of the five proposed terminals never filed applications with federal regulators.
Still, the remaining three terminals enjoyed statements of support from top local politicians,
“The proposed project will create hundreds of engineering, construction and associated support jobs while generating substantial economic development in South Texas. This is particularly important in Cameron County, which has an unemployment rate of 8.0%,” wrote then-U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville, to the Department of Energy.
In the neighboring district, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, has co-sponsored legislation advancing LNG export plans and served as co-chair for the LNG Allies’ Transatlantic Energy Dialogue in Washington, D.C.
And U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Houston, has praised plans for the two terminals, saying, “There is an energy renaissance occurring in the United States, and Texas is leading the way. These projects will further economic growth.”
Activists from the Rio Grande Valley worked around their elected representatives and embarked on an international campaign to target the projects’ financials.
Delegations traveled to France, Germany and Ireland and lobbied major institutions, with the support of local protesters, to break ties with the Rio Grande projects.
“The decision to go and connect people in Europe and to talk with government leaders in France is so innovative in terms of how to stop facilities that want to build in Texas,” said Robin Schneider, the Austin-based director of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “It’s really been an inspiration.”
In 2017, Hinojosa and Mancias went to Paris, where they appeared on local radio shows, led protests and spoke at a shareholder meeting of PNB Paribas Bank, a financial adviser for Texas LNG. Several months later, the bank withdrew and updated its investment policy to exclude shale gas projects.
In December 2019, a group went to Ireland, where the Port of Cork had signed an agreement to build a terminal to import South Texas gas. The same day local groups demonstrated nearby, Hinojosa met the port commission to make a case for ending the deal.
She told them about her college years at the University of North Texas in Denton after 2010, when the fracking boom at the Barnett Shale brought loud, fuming wells on land adjacent to a hospital, football stadium and park, which Texas had prohibited the community from banning in their city.
She showed them a previous edition of her Sierra Club report, explaining that proposed projects would develop wild wetlands and destroy sacred Indigenous sites. A few months later, the Port of Cork withdrew its agreements.
Last year, a group of Carrizo Comecrudo tribal members went to Germany to lead protests against five import terminals planned near Hamburg, which would provide a crucial market for South Texas exports.
“No company ever talked to our tribe about the LNG terminals they plan to build on our territories,” Christopher Basaldú, a member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, told activists in Germany. “They’re destroying the water and wildlife, all for European consumption.”
For the Carrizo Comecrudo, this international campaign is part of an effort to save their lands that goes back centuries. Mancias, the tribal chair, said many of the group’s old village sites, sacred spots where their ancestors lived, have been covered up by urban and agricultural sprawl.
“We’ve been traumatized for 500 years. First by the Spaniards, then by the Mexicans, then by the Texans, then the Americans,” Mancias said. “Five hundred years later they are still exporting the resources from this land. And they are making the laws, they are making the rules.”
People often tell him to move on and forget the past, to give up his people’s arcane claim to the sacred spaces of a bygone era. But that would mean forgetting his grandmother, born in the 1890s, who told him the stories of places in their people’s world.
These places are the source of his identity, he said. But the developers who want it never care.
“We are the people of this land not because we own it, because it owns us,” Mancias said. “We’re gonna die and we can’t take the land with us. We become the land. The land takes us.”
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