Coastal residents fear South Texas LNG buildout
While much of the Texas coast is inundated with oil and gas infrastructure, the southern coast remains largely untouched by heavy industry. That could change with big plans for Texas LNG export terminals.
(Port Isabel, Texas) Emma Guevara stood on the muddy shores of a channel of water where about two dozen fishermen, bundled up, waded through the mud to cast their lines. It was an abnormally foggy and cold day at the southernmost tip of coastal Texas, just across the border with Mexico.
“We’re a low-income majority-minority area, so we don’t have access to quality food, healthy food, fresh food,” Guevara, a Brownsville resident and organizer with the Sierra Club, an environmental NGO, told Gas Outlook.
More than 90 percent of the population of Brownsville, the main city nearby, identify as Hispanic or Latino. Many people have families on both sides of the border, with Matamoros, a sister city of Brownsville, just a few miles away on the other side of the Rio Grande River.
“People will be out here fishing rain or shine. For a lot of people, this is subsistence fishing,” Guevara said. More than a quarter of the population of Brownsville lives in poverty, compared with 11 percent nationally.
The water channel she was standing next to ran from the Bahia Grande, a system of wetlands that was cut off from water when the Port of Brownsville was constructed in the 1930s. For decades, the Bahia Grande had been a dustbowl, but in the mid-2000s, it was rejoined with the ship channel that heads out to the Gulf of Mexico. Before that connection was built, the Bahia Grande had been an expanse of desiccated cracked earth that would blow dust into nearby towns. Now, replenished by tidal flows, it is teeming with wildlife.
The channel is the cornerstone of the largest coastal restoration project in all of Texas and one of the largest such projects in the country. It is widely deemed to be a major environmental success story. And it is but one piece of a rich ecological corridor that runs through much of the lower end of the Rio Grande Valley, where the Rio Grande River meets the Gulf Coast.
But that could change with the arrival of new LNG export terminals. At one point, there were five LNG projects on the drawing board. Now only two remain — Texas LNG and Rio Grande LNG. The larger of the two, Rio Grande LNG, is much further along, inching closer to announcing a final investment decision. With five liquefaction trains and a capacity to export 27 million tonnes per year, it would be one of the largest LNG export terminals in North America.
This stretch of the Texas coastline is not yet paved over with pipelines, compressor stations, export terminals, flare stacks, and fossil fuel storage tanks. While much of the area is low-income, it is also rich in wildlife, nature, wetlands, and beaches. Many want to keep it that way.
“We’ve seen what happened to Corpus Christi, we’ve seen what’s happened to Houston and the surrounding suburbs. And we don’t want that to happen to us because this is one of the few pieces of untouched Texas coastline left,” Guevara said.
If built, Rio Grande LNG would encompass an area the size of New York’s Central Park.
NextDecade, the company behind Rio Grande LNG, began clearcutting its site just up the road from the restoration channel. Rio Grande LNG does not have all of its federal and state permits just yet, but it has recently announced agreements with buyers, and is signaling that it is preparing to move forward with construction.
Guevara said that much of the land now occupied by the LNG companies used to offer public access for walking and hiking. “My mom and my grandpa always talk about how they would come hike out here for hours, because it was something to do,” she said. But now, “there’s little to no access to it.”
For Juan Mancias, the loss of land leaves an even deeper scar. As chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe (Esto’k Gna), these lands have belonged to his people for thousands of years. The Carrizo/Comecrudo lived in a broad area around the Rio Grande Delta. But waves of conquest — first the Spanish, then Mexico, then the United States — led to violence and dispossession that has spanned several centuries.
Even in recent years, the onslaughts have continued. The Carrizo/Comecrudo joined a lawsuit against former President Trump’s border wall because it threatened sacred Indigenous lands. The two LNG projects pose similar dangers.
“For 500 years they came here for one thing — gold and silver. Anything that would make the Europeans rich. Here we are, 500 years later, and they want the resources from this area,” Mancias told Gas Outlook. Only today, instead of gold, it’s gas that will get extracted from the earth and shipped around the world for profit, he said.
Of particular concern is the Garcia Pasture, a pre-Colombian village site that could date back to between 1000 and 1750 CE, but is located on land where Texas LNG would be built. Last year, the Garcia Pasture was listed by the World Monuments Fund, an international organization, as one of 25 sites around the world of “extraordinary” cultural significance that faces pressing threats.
When asked about potential impacts to Indigenous lands, neither Texas LNG nor Rio Grande LNG responded.
“We’re protecting our lands. We’re not protesting here. We’re trying to defend what’s left,” Mancias said. “What makes their stuff more sacred than ours?”
Concerns about air pollution
A few miles away from where Rio Grande LNG is clearing its site, a group of mostly retired residents gathered in late January at a nature centre for an event put on by Save RGV [Rio Grande Valley], a local group opposed to LNG.
It rained lightly, a welcome relief for an area that has been in drought. Against the backdrop of snacks and tropical music, activists mingled and swapped stories and rumours on the latest developments at the LNG sites. Gas Outlook spoke with several residents, and while they came to the meeting for different reasons, they all shared a passion for the Rio Grand Valley.
“We were told when we formed Save RGV from LNG in May 2014 that we were wasting our breath, that all our elected officials were lined up behind the LNG projects, that big money was pushing them forward, that this was just how it’s always been in our poor backwater small part of the world,” said John Young, a resident of San Benito.
At age 81, with hearing loss and increasing difficulty with speech, Young said that he’s especially concerned about an industrial site that pumps out tons of air pollution, specifically fine particulate matter that is set to come from the LNG facility.
Studies have shown that PM2.5, the very fine particles that get lodged in the lungs and can increase the risk of a variety of illnesses, can travel long distances and contribute to increased mortality. And Rio Grande LNG’s project alone will be the largest source of air pollution for the entire Rio Grande Valley if and when it comes online.
Others also expressed similar fears about air pollution from the LNG site, which will contain flare stacks and several very large gas storage tanks.
“I guess making natural gas super cold is not a clean process. So, there will be a lot of particulate matter injected into the air. And this area is a relatively clean area, it doesn’t have industrial plants,” said Steve Wilder, a resident of Harlingen, a small city just northwest of Brownsville. Wilder is concerned because his wife has had respiratory ailments in the past and he fears that sources of pollution will make things worse. He came to the Save RGV event to learn more and meet people who shared his concerns. “The air pollution is going to span the whole Rio Grande Valley,” he said.
Gas Outlook has reported on the air pollution that comes from LNG operations elsewhere, including in southwest Louisiana where gas flaring is occurring with alarming frequency. Even if pollution emitted from the facilities meets federal standards, it may still cause harm.
Part of the problem is a lack of data, said Jennifer Richards, a staff attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a non-profit that has represented two different groups in litigation against both LNG projects.
“It’s difficult to know exactly what the impacts of these facilities will be on the local area in part because there’s not a lot of local monitoring of air quality,” Richards said in an interview with Gas Outlook. “For some common pollutants, like nitrous oxide, some of the closest monitors are much further up the coast in Corpus Christi. So, it’s hard to know exactly what the baseline is in this area for some of the pollutants.”
A unique ecology under threat
The Gulf Coast may bring to mind sprawling petrochemical facilities, oil storage tanks, and LNG export terminals, but none of that is here on the southernmost stretch of the Texas coastline. Instead, there are beaches, nature preserves, and wildlife corridors.
“This area is one of the few places on the Texas Gulf Coast that doesn’t have excessive petrochemical development. Its economy is almost entirely tourism based,” Richards said.
Ecologically speaking, much of the south Texas coast is not only unique for the state, but unique compared to the rest of the country. An arid, semi-tropical climate, the south Texas coast has more in common with much of coastal Mexico than it does any other part of the United States.
Many people come from around the country to South Padre Island, a narrow but lengthy barrier island that runs more than 100 miles up and down the Gulf Coast. The southern tip of the island is full of sandy beaches and miles of hotels and restaurants.
Between South Padre Island and the mainland is an enormous lagoon called the Laguna Madre.
“It’s one of only a few hypersaline lagoons in the world,” Ken Teague, a retired coastal ecologist, told Gas Outlook. He said it’s very salty because there is very little rainfall, and the Rio Grande River isn’t much of a river by the time it reaches the Texas coast. Hot summer temperatures also result in evaporation. The result is an enormous body of salty water, hemmed in by the world’s largest barrier island, making it somewhat separate from the Gulf of Mexico.
The U.S. National Park Service calls the Laguna Madre “one of the most overlooked natural wonders in North America.”
The saline lagoon is home to a variety of marine life, including seagrass beds that provide habitat for abundant crabs, shrimp, and fish.
“[Seagrasses] are extremely important ecologically. They produce most of the energy that the ecosystem needs,” Teague said.
Then there are the birds. “It’s probably the most ecologically diverse area in the United States. Our main wildlife refuge, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, is the birdiest refuge in the nation — it has more birds than any other wildlife refuge in the nation,” Richard Moore, a wildlife reporter, told Gas Outlook. Many species of birds stop here on their way to and from Central America. “This is probably the most important migratory corridor in North America. It’s just a remarkable area.”
When asked about what makes the region so unique, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited yet another protected area — the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. A tract of the refuge on the coast “encompasses secluded coastal areas interspersed with miles of beach, saline flats, mangroves, shallow bays, and unique thorn scrub dunes of wind-blown clay known as ‘lomas’,” the spokesperson said. “The refuge is also a wildlife corridor connecting coastal and riparian areas along the Rio Grande, as well as containing habitat for the endangered northern aplomado falcon and endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and numerous other species — including over 500 birds.”
Indeed, the area is home to a wide range of threatened and endangered species, including piping and snowy plovers, reddish egret, brown pelican, peregrine falcon, and white-tail hawk. The iconic ocelot, also endangered, is found in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge close to the proposed LNG sites. Only a few dozen individuals remain.
“The fact that there’s that many threatened and endangered species in that area. That’s very unusual,” Teague said.
It is this ecological richness that excites many people who live in the area, and also explains why so many tourists travel from far away to visit.
“I mean the nesting islands, if you see them in May and June, it is like the Atlanta airport with birds there. It’s just fabulous. Green herons, great blue herons, white herons, egrets, piping plovers…they’re all nesting and holding their territory. You could just sit there and watch, and I’m fascinated by it,” said Mary Angela Branch, a board member of Save RGV.
Both Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG would be built on land controlled by the Port of Brownsville.
In order to equip the sites to handle massive LNG tankers, the ship channel will need to be dredged. That could wipe out shrimp that breed in the channel, potentially impacting the livelihoods of shrimpers and fishermen.
It could also have negative impacts on seagrasses that provide important habitat for a range of species. The restoration of the Bahia Grande — the reconnection to the ship channel two decades ago, which brought it back to life — is a major environmental success story. It is now full of seagrass beds, providing habitat to wildlife. But dredging would put this area at risk as well.
“I pointed that out repeatedly to FERC and to the Army Corps of Engineers, and they ignored my comments repeatedly. And at one point they even denied that those seagrasses were there,” Teague said, referring to what he described as a cursory analysis of the impacts of dredging by the federal government. “They are obviously there. You can’t deny it. They’re there.”
He admitted that the impact on seagrasses is not top of mind for most people, but that he is nonetheless “floored” that the issue has just been glossed over as he sees it.
The fate of seagrass beds unsurprisingly captures less interest when so much money is being put on the table. At over $15 billion, NextDecade boasts that the Rio Grande LNG project will be the largest privately funded infrastructure project in the state of Texas.
NextDecade did not respond to questions from Gas Outlook.
In a statement to Gas Outlook, Glenfarne Energy Transition, the owner of Texas LNG said:
“Texas LNG’s ‘Green by Design’ approach focuses on avoiding and eliminating most CO2 emissions by using electric motor compressors driven by renewable power. We are also focused on using responsibly sourced associated natural gas for liquefaction limiting upstream impact and providing a cleaner alternative to coal and dirtier fuels. These steps are taken specifically to protect the public health and environment of our local communities while providing training and high-paying jobs to a historically disadvantaged area. These factors make Texas LNG an indispensable asset for the local community, the global energy transition, and the world’s energy security.”
The Port of Brownsville did not respond to questions, but in the past port officials have hailed LNG investments as huge economic opportunities. “These new energy projects reflect our long-term strategy and vision for the port to be a catalyst for economic growth in the Rio Grande Valley by encouraging domestic and international business investments and driving developments that create new good paying job opportunities for the region,” John Reed, Chairman of the Brownsville Navigation District, said in a 2019 statement when federal regulators gave the greenlight for LNG projects at the port.
But while LNG terminals may employ a few thousand workers during construction, once online, they employ a relatively small number of people. Rio Grande LNG, for example, would only employ 270 people permanently when it is operational.
Despite the billions of dollars in investment, “it’s probably employing about as many people as one or two Whataburgers,” said Jim Chapman, a board member of Save RGV, referring to a local fast-food chain. “And it’s not producing anything for the community. They’re just piping in gas, purifying it, liquefying and storing it, and putting it on tankers and send it to Asia or Europe or whatever. So, this is not something that’s really benefitting in the area.”
Meanwhile, it’s unclear what impacts new sources of pollution will have on the tourist economy. Not only will the low-income and predominantly Latino residents of areas like Laguna Heights be potentially exposed to dirtier air, but they also may see further downsides if the tourist economy takes a hit.
“Many people who live in the Port Isabel and Laguna Heights areas work in the hotel and restaurant industries on South Padre Island and in Port Isabel itself. And a number of those tourists come for the environment there. It’s a location for birding, it’s a location for fishing, dolphin sightings, things like that,” said Richards, the attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “And when you start to build out industrial complexes in those areas, it detracts from that type of tourism.”
Back at the restoration channel, fishermen continued to cast their lines. The wind picked up, and some huddled in hoodies near makeshift campfires on the channel’s edge.
Guevara said the prospect of a new polluting industry where one doesn’t yet exist would add another layer onto communities that are already struggling with a militarized border, lack of healthcare, and economic precarity. “We’re already under attack here because of existing on the border, existing as a majority-minority community. Existing in Texas. It’s just a lot,” she said.