Sandwiched between the Bahia Grande wetlands and the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area at the southern tip of Texas lies the Brownsville Ship Channel, a narrow, 17-mile waterway carrying traffic into and out of the Port of Brownsville.
There, plans to develop a handful of liquefied natural gas terminals are drawing intense scrutiny as locals weigh the jobs and investments of a new industry against disruption to habitats and viewsheds at a spot known as one of the Texas coastline’s few pristine areas.
Five developers have proposed to export LNG from greenfield sites along the channel, which lies just a few miles from the Mexican border and boasts deepwater ship access and proximity to key Texas natural gas plays.
Three projects — Annova LNG, majority-owned by electricity generation and utility giant Exelon; Rio Grande LNG, owned by The Woodlands, Texas-based LNG developer NextDecade; and privately owned Texas LNG — started pre-filing procedures with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this year.
At a FERC "scoping meeting" earlier this month, comments poured in as local residents had their first chance to formally raise concerns about the developments.
"This is one of the biggest stretches of undeveloped coastal habitat and coastal land" in the state, said Stefanie Herweck, a volunteer with the group Save RGV from LNG, which represents communities throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
Other beaches are in heavily industrialized regions where "you have to drive through refineries to get to the beach," she said, adding that visitors come to nearby South Padre Island for a more pristine nature experience.
Today, commerce at the Port of Brownsville includes shipments of steel, petroleum products, metal, wind turbine components and oil rigs, and several ship salvage companies dismantle old vessels along the channel.
If several LNG projects were to go forward, it would dramatically increase the port’s industrial footprint. The projects include electric generation plants to power chillers that supercool natural gas to minus 160 degrees Celsius, forcing it into a liquid state for transport on giant tankers, as well as large storage tanks and other equipment.
Critics are concerned the projects would cause irreparable harm to native habitat at the LNG sites themselves and change the character of an area known for birdwatching and saltwater fishing.
Endangered ocelots, and acres of wetlands
Some of those concerns center on the plot of land under lease option by Annova LNG. Under a separate lease with the port dating back almost 40 years and terminated last year, that plot was managed together with other nearby wetlands as a refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"What’s critical about this piece of property is, it’s one of the only known areas where ocelots are documented as having crossed the ship channel," said Robert Jess, senior refuge manager for FWS’s South Texas Refuge Complex.
Ocelots — endangered cats that resemble miniature leopards — once ranged from Arkansas west to Arizona, but today the only remaining population in the United States is a limited number of animals in South Texas, Jess said. Mexico has a larger, healthier breeding population, he explained, and interbreeding among those groups is key to the health of the U.S. animals.
"Genetic diversity is really critical to the success of any species," Jess noted. "This species goes all the way down to South America, so we’re really looking at the northernmost range. … If the northern population is eradicated, the species certainly isn’t extinct, it’s just eradicated in the U.S., but that would be a shame."
Beyond the ocelot, Jess pointed to the larger ecosystem as a special resource, with two migratory bird flyways, native vegetation and rare jaguarundis, another native cat.
Today, 5 percent of the Rio Grande Valley is native habitat, he said, and less than 1 percent of brackish wetlands like the Bahia Grande and Bolsa Chica wetlands, where LNG developments are planned, remain. If all three of the leading LNG projects are developed, he said, half that land would be affected.
Among the most sensitive features are ancient, scrubby, dune-like formations known as lomas, which form gradually and are highly sensitive to disruption.
"Some of these lands have been impacted already through the ship channel, but some [lomas] are not impacted," Jess said. "These lomas are very similar to old-growth forests, in concept — they may not look like much, but they take several thousand years to develop."
Ecotourism at risk?
Jess pointed to a study prepared by Texas A&M University in 2011 to assess ecotourism in the valley, which said it "is often considered the number two birdwatching destination in North America," with almost 500 bird species sited in its four counties.
The study conservatively estimated that nature tourism generates about $344 million per year and more than 4,400 temporary and permanent jobs.
"People are going to have to weigh the impacts and consequences of one, two or three LNG plants in an area that is currently under, or was under, some form of protection. So there may be an impact to that ecotourism dollar," Jess said. "One thing that we’re doing is being very proactive with the three proposed LNGs; we’re meeting with them, we’re listening to their concerns, we’re trying to learn the whole process of an LNG and … long-term, how these things work."
"But it still boils down to, if you look at the mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and you look at the mission of a [developer], those are two missions that are going in very different directions," he added.
As part of its environmental review of the proposed projects, FERC will be working with FWS to weigh what impacts the developments would have on local species and ecosystems, and how those might be minimized and mitigated. Jess said he has faith in the process.
"I could say that I have to believe in it, but I actually do believe in it," he said. "I’ve been involved in processes where [National Environmental Protection Act review] has stopped the development on very sensitive lands.
"If someone came to me or to a conservation entity down here and said, ‘You know what, one or two of these is going to be developed, you tell me which one won’t be developed,’ I’d say, ‘The most important one to protect is that loma and that [ocelot migratory] corridor; that’s the one that has the most significant detrimental impact.’"
Workforce development and local support
Herweck, of Save RGV from LNG, said that in addition to the conservation and ecotourism issues, her group has concerns from safety and environmental justice perspectives.
One of the projects would be less than 2 miles from the local Wal-Mart store, she said, which could put nearby communities and visitors at risk in an accident. She pointed to an explosion last year at a Washington state LNG facility that resulted in the evacuation of people within a 2-mile radius (EnergyWire, April 1, 2014).
Redeveloping an existing industrial site, as other U.S. LNG export projects have done, is often less expensive than starting from scratch, and Herweck said she suspects the companies eyeing Brownsville see its local government as desperate for investment.
"Brownsville is one of the poorest cities in the U.S.," she noted, and jobs are sorely needed. "This is what happens to communities where people are poor and large polluting industries move in," she added. "We don’t think that these few hundred jobs are worth transforming our beautiful, paradise-like area into an industrial sacrifice zone."
The companies see those issues differently, of course.
James Markham-Hill, communications manager for the Rio Grande LNG project, noted that the FERC review encompasses more than two years of review, including detailed reports on a wide range of highly specialized subjects. Markham-Hill welcomed FERC’s pre-filing scoping meeting as "an important part of this process."
"The idea behind that is to get the local public’s concerns voiced and to incorporate that into the [environmental impact statement]. So we actually look at it as a very beneficial part of this process … because they bring up issues that perhaps we hadn’t identified yet," he said.
"Given a large industrial project like ours, you’re always, no matter where you are, going to come across some individuals or groups that are opposed to any kind of industrial project going up in their region," he added, noting that opponents are often more outspoken than supporters.
One of Markham-Hill’s priorities is to lay the groundwork for the project to support local workforce development.
The Rio Grande project, which is expected to cost $8 billion for its first development phase and as much as $20 billion if later proposed stages of the project are built, is anticipated to create 4,000 to 6,000 jobs during construction and more than 200 jobs in operations mode.
"We’re working hard to set up systems so we can hire and buy locally as much as possible," he said, including pre-qualifying local companies for needed services and working with schools, colleges and trade schools to ensure that would-be workers have access to the training they would need.
Bill Harris, a spokesman for Annova, said comments at the FERC scoping meeting ran about 8-to-1 in favor of the project, with locals welcoming the prospect of new jobs and industry.
"We went through lots and lots of different sites, not just in Brownsville but other places, as well," before deciding on the final project location, he said. "We specifically chose the south side of the channel because it takes us further away from residents, populations of people — the south side of the channel is further away from all established communities."
Harris said the Annova project is a first foray into LNG for Exelon, but the company is known in its other business areas for its focus on public outreach. "This is kind of like a three-legged stool for us," he added, pointing to the necessary elements as getting through the FERC review, signing up long-term LNG customers and ensuring broad public support.
As far as the sensitivity of Annova’s property and its former status as a protected area, Harris said questions about how it was managed before Annova signed a lease option should be directed to the Port of Brownsville.
Silence on fracking
One issue that has not loomed large in the community, at least so far, is hydraulic fracturing.
Elsewhere in the country, concern about the safety of fracking has driven opposition to many natural gas projects, including some LNG terminals.
At Dominion Resources’ Cove Point LNG project, environmental groups have charged that federal regulators should have considered "induced production" of natural gas from project demand, and the associated impacts from fracking, before giving it a green light (EnergyWire, Oct. 4, 2014).
Herweck said Save RGV from LNG is less concerned than some other groups, including the Sierra Club (with which she also volunteers) about fracking and the extent to which building new gas export terminals would encourage new domestic production.
"We are in Texas, so I think in our coalition there are people who are, you know, more concerned with the actual sites and see LNG exports as not necessarily a bad thing, but that it doesn’t make sense to destroy and degrade these sites and these existing economic drivers," she said.
"Building whole new facilities in a greenfield development, especially when the cost of producing this gas is something like $9 [per million British thermal units], and it’s selling in Japan for $8 [per MMBtu] right now — we’re talking about destroying something that is valuable and irreplaceable for a speculative endeavor."