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Leon Kaye headshot

RAN: Texas Rio Grande Valley Under Threat from Natural Gas

By Leon Kaye

The Rio Grande Valley, at the southernmost tip of Texas along the Mexican border, is one of the fastest growing regions in the U.S. Its local economy is largely dependent on agriculture, which grows crops such as the region’s popular citrus fruit. In addition, ecotourism is also a major employer due to coastal destinations such as South Padre Island and the valley’s rich and diverse semi-tropical wildlife.

But according to the environmental NGO Rainforest Action Network, liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals proposed in cities such as Brownsville are a long-term threat to both the local economy and environment.

Despite the two-year slump in conventional energy prices, the LNG industry is still bullish about its future, especially in Texas. But where energy companies see opportunities, RAN views the impact of new LNG terminals as putting much of the Rio Grande Valley’s environment -- and the health of poorer local residents -- at risk.

LNG is often derived from fracking. The fuel is transported along pipelines from where it was originally extracted to terminals at coastal ports. The gas is then cooled to a temperature of -260 degrees Fahrenheit (-160 degrees Celsius), allowing it to be compressed into a liquid.

NGOs, as well as business publications such as the Wall Street Journal, insist the U.S. now faces an oversupply of natural gas due to excessive extraction from fracking. In order to compensate for low energy prices, fossil fuel corporations are now looking to international markets. Enter LNG export terminals or, as RAN describes, “fracked gas terminals.”

The problem, say RAN’s researchers, is that if approved, these terminals would be constructed near neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. The results could be an egregious violation of environmental justice as these LNG terminals could cause air pollution levels to spike. The outcome, therefore, would be students missing more days of school, an increase in asthma attacks and contaminated water. The quest to expand fracking in southern Texas, in fact, even led one energy company to suggest fracking in the middle of residential neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, what is now a mostly pristine coastline would see risks imposed on its local shrimping and fishing industries. In addition, ecotourism jobs that depend on popular recreational activities like sport fishing and bird watching would also come under threat. The NGO suggested that, in total, as many 6,600 jobs reliant on ecotourism could be negatively affected. In contrast, RAN’s study concludes that the construction of LNG terminals would create only a few hundred permanent jobs after the temporary workers needed to build these plants were terminated.

RAN also paints a portrait of intimidation tactics and power grabs by the companies proposing three southern Texas LNG terminals. RAN accused Annova LNG and Rio Grande LNG of demanding property tax breaks as well as forging dubious research partnerships with a local university. Residents responded in kind, as local press reports covered protests at public hearings held to discuss whether these proposed LNG terminals will move forward.

The RAN study estimates that if all three LNG terminals are approved, Brownsville’s port would be the scene of 5.1 billion cubic feet of gas produced every day. One year’s worth of gas exported out of Brownsville would be the equivalent of the annual carbon emissions coming from 30 coal-fired power plants. Investors in the LNG plants would profit handsomely, while local communities would pay the health, environmental and social costs.

The problem in south Texas, RAN insists, is more than a jobs-versus-environment fight. The NGO called out several of the largest American and international banks for funding the companies seeking these LNG terminals. The list includes France’s BNP Paribas, Japan’s Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. (SMBC), Switzerland's Credit Suisse, and America's Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley.

RAN urged these banks to “stop harming local communities and shorting the climate” with these LNG investments. The alternative, in RAN’s view, is the Rio Grande Valley growing as a hub for Texas’ burgeoning clean-energy industry, as well as a region where ecotourism can continue to thrive.

"This study puts banks on notice: Fracked gas and its infrastructure is a bridge to disaster,” said Jason Opeña Disterhoft, a senior campaigner with RAN. “These projects export a commodity that is even worse for the climate than coal and represent a blatant deviation from U.S. climate commitments. Banks are in deep despite all the red flags that this industry raises, and need to stop fueling this frenzy."

Image credit: Vince Smith/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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