Writing by: Rachel Flores Photography by: South Padre Island
PROTECT South Padre Island
South Padre Island is for the birds….and the turtles…..and the ocelots, the dolphins and the fish.
Nestled in the southern tip of the Gulf Coast of Texas, less than an hour away from the Mexican border, the small barrier island of South Padre is more commonly known for its notoriety as a Spring Break destination in the 1980s and 1990s. Yes, MTV used to film here. Yes, that actually used to mean something. However, for nature enthusiasts, particularly birders, South Padre, along with the rest of South Texas, has long been a secret hidden paradise.
For starters, as one of the nine World Birding Center sites in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, South Padre is home to approximately 30-50 species of native birds not found anywhere else in the country.1 During the winter, its location and warm tropical climate make it a major migration corridor for birds heading to Southern Mexico and Central America. Endangered species such as the Brown Pelican, the Piping Plover, and the Peregrine Falcon are frequent island visitors. 2
In addition to its bird population, South Padre Island is crucial to the survival of the critically endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, i.e. the most endangered of all sea turtles. Placed on the endangered list in the 1970s, only about one percent of the annual 125,000 hatchlings survive to sexual maturity which occurs at around 10-15 years.3 The sea turtles can live up to 30-50 years if not attacked by natural predators or fisherman.4 Because females return year after year to the same beach where they were hatched to nest, there are very few nesting sites.4 The beach at Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas, Mexico is the primary and biggest known nesting site in the world for the Kemp’s Ridley.5 The second largest site is Padre Island which includes both North and South Padre Island, TX.6
Liquified Natural Gas
LNG is natural gas that has been supercooled to a liquid state at -260o F (-162.2oC). Liquefying natural gas reduces its volume by more than 600 times, making it more practical to store and transport. Activists who oppose fracking view LNG as closely related to and encouraging fracking since it is basically fracked gas. Although the Federal Energy Commission stresses the safety of processing and transporting LNG, environmentalists have concerns including the possibility of leaks, explosions in its gas form, and pollution risks in its liquid form.7
Sea Turtle Inc., the non-profit located on South Padre Island dedicated to preserving the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, submitted an official letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) expressing its concerns with the proposed plants. The letter states that “discharges of thermal water from the regasification process will likely introduce thermal changes, mercury, chlorine, and possibly other contaminants into known endangered sea turtle habitat,” and cites a report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife agency enitled the “Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Five Year Review” which outlines the threats posed by “exposure to heavy metals and other contaminants.” According to the letter, “Kemp’s Ridleys are known to bioaccumulate a variety of toxins including organochlorine compounds and heavy metals. Such exposure may lead to immunosuppression or other hormonal imbalances.”7
Adding to environmentalists’ concerns about the LNG plants is the fact that one of the proposed sites is a former wildlife corridor and could have a significant impact on the remaining ocelot population. The ocelot is small, wild cat with similar body dimensions to a bobcat and a distinctive fur pattern similar to a jaguar. Although still common in Mexico and Central America, the U.S. ocelot population is down to approximately 80 total. All are located in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV).8 Half of them are found at the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge located across the bay from South Padre Island. The Sierra Club of the Lower Rio Grande Valley has been particularly vocal about its concerns for the ocelot. In an interview with the local newspaper, the Valley Morning Star, Jim Chapman, Chairman of the Sierra Club, stated that the “proposed LNG plants along the Brownsville Ship Channel would sever the corridor developed to allow the sparse U.S. endangered ocelot population to breed with the large Mexican ocelot population.”9
The same article also cites U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Hilary Swarts, adding that “the coastal corridor is an important component of ocelot recovery to connect isolated populations and increase genetic exchange.”10
In an interview with Shakti Yogi Journal, Save RGV From LNG spokeswoman Stephanie Herweck also echoed the same concerns regarding the ocelots and the wildlife corridor. Ms. Herweck is also a member of the executive committee of the Sierra Club of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.11
As the list of endangered species continues, one may begin to wonder why this little beach town whose main attractions are dolphin watches and fishing tournaments and who distinguishes itself from the rest of the Texas coastal towns by actively marketing its pristine water and lack of industrialization would consider this sort of development. The answer is more complicated than it would seem, but yes, there is a lot of money at stake.
It is impossible to fully understand the interest in the LNG plants without understanding the politics and economies of South Padre’s neighboring cities. One of the factors complicating the situation is that if approved, the LNG plants would not be built in South Padre Island, but rather 10 miles south at the Port of Brownsville. The Port of Brownsville is a deep-sea ship channel located between Port Isabel, TX and Brownsville, TX. The port exists within the Brownsville Navigation District, a political subdivision of the State of Texas. The navigation district is overseen by an elected board of commissioners that establishes the policies, regulations and contracts for the Port. South Padre Island residents do not vote to elect the navigation district commissioners. The residents of Brownsville do. The Port Commissioners do not report to any of Brownsville’s city officials. They operate independently and can only be voted out by election.
With its population of fewer than 3,000 residents as well as million dollar homes, South Padre Island sits in stark contrast to Brownsville, which was recently named the poorest city in the country and whose population hovers around 200,000. The average median income in Brownsville is $32,288 and more than 35% of its residents live in poverty. It is in this context that city, county, state and federal officials have cited job creation and infrastructure investments in support of the LNG plants.
Jobs and Economy
In an editorial letter titled “Exporting liquid natural gas would benefit Texas,” sent to the local newspaper the Brownsville Herald, Congressman Filemon Vela (TX-34) states:
“Construction of LNG plants and the export of natural gas abroad would greatly benefit the U.S. and in particular Texas, which has at least five different LNG export projects in development. It is estimated that the construction of one LNG plant, which requires a private capital investment of between $6 billion and $12 billion, would provide up to 3,000 construction jobs. Once complete, the facility would employ 250-300 highly paid workers. Furthermore, new tax revenues would be generated as one plant would export several billion dollars’ worth of LNG per year.”13
A year later in a letter of support filed to the U.S. Department of Energy on December 23, 2014, Congressman Vela continued to voice a similar argument stating that:
“The [LNG] project represents a $1.3 billion direct investment in South Texas and will strengthen the U.S. energy infrastructure by promoting domestic production of natural gas from formations such as the Eagle Ford Shale. Additionally, the proposed project will create hundreds of engineering, construction and associated support jobs while generating substantial economic development in South Texas.”14
Congressman Vela is not alone in his support. The Texas LNG website which was created as a public relations tool for one of the LNG projects includes other letters of support from the Eddie Lucio and Eddie Lucio, Jr., (father and son elected as State Senator and State Representative respectively), Brownsville’s Mayor Tony Martinez, and various organizations dedicated to economic development such as the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce.15 Newly appointed Texas State Secretary Carlos Cascos (R), who until recently served as Cameron County Judge, has also been a vocal proponent.
Turning the Tide on Public Opinion
Conspicuously missing from the list of supporters are letters from the mayors of the cities of South Padre Island, Port Isabel, and Laguna Vista. This is where the efforts of opponents and the Save the RGV from LNG group can really be seen. Formed by members from cities across the Rio Grande Valley including ones farther away like McAllen, the group’s social media campaign and public meetings have gained momentum. In September 2015, the South Padre Island City Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing the development of liquefied natural gas facilities at the Port of Brownsville. The resolution was submitted to the FERC as part of its official requests for public input. The cities of Port Isabel and Laguna Vista also passed similar resolutions.16
While the resolutions from the cities are not binding laws or ordinances (for example these councils did not vote to legally prohibit the construction of LNG plants in the area) they do present a public relations problem for the LNG companies. Of more impact was the unanimous vote by the Point Isabel Independent School District (PIISD) to deny a tax abatement for Annova LNG, one of the three LNG companies which has submitted to the FERC. The Annova LNG site would be located within the limits of the PIISD and not the Brownsville Independent School District. South Padre Island does not have any schools. Residents of South Padre Island, Laguna Vista, and Laguna Heights send their children to the public schools in Port Isabel or private schools in other towns. Annova LNG had requested a tax valuation from the school district of $25 million for 10 years.17 The request was a hedge to protect their investment, meaning that despite being a valued as a $2.9 billion facility, Annova would only pay property taxes on a fraction of its value, thereby amortizing their start-up costs.
Requests such as these are common as the competition between cities for job-creating companies increases. In an economy where a Wal-Mart can make or break a city, companies are used to being courted by delegations of public officials bearing gifts in the form of tax breaks.
However, for opponents of the LNG plants, it is further proof that while these companies tout job creation and commitment to the local community, they really are looking for the highest bidder and in the context of the area’s poverty, seeking to take advantage of a poor community desperate for jobs.
The PIISD decision to deny the abatement is remarkable because the school district actually lost money by saying no.18 While South Padre Island and Laguna Vista are populated by wealthy retirees and affluent families, Port Isabel and Laguna Heights are home to lower income working families who make a living from the local shrimping and fishing industry and the island’s hospitality industry.
It is interesting how much the argument over the LNG plants has shifted away from the environmental to the economic and political arena, and how successful the opponents of LNG have been in this area. While speaking with Shakti Yogi Journal, Ms. Herweck talked about the plants’ gas emissions, carbon footprint, and how these plants go against the aims of the Paris Climate talks, but on the grounds that the focus is definitely political and on the economy.19
In an article for the Rio Grande Guardian published September 13, 2015 and before the September 15 PIISD vote, Ms. Herweck heavily criticized Annova LNG and the Texas State laws which allow corporations to exploit local communities through tax abatements. In her article, Ms. Herweck said that between their request to the PIISD and another request to Cameron County, Annova was asking for “tax breaks that could top out in excess of $220 million.”20 That Cameron County, which is in the middle of the election season for County Judge, decided to table Annova’s request for a later undisclosed date instead of voting to approve or deny, is also very telling about how successful the LNG opponents have been at pressuring the local political government.
Thanks to Save RGV for the photo map.
Part of the shift in strategy may have to do with how good gas and energy companies have become at managing the environmental components of their public relations. Facing criticisms regarding the endangered ocelot, Annova LNG donated $40,000 to the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville to establish a program to track via GPS the movements of the remaining ocelots to keep them safe.21 Also, maybe to prove that they really do not use the corridor where their plant will be located.
However, these companies seem less adept at countering arguments that the regulating system is rigged in their favor. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the government body responsible for approving the project, has become a favorite target of the Save the RGV from LNG group. In speaking with Shakti Yogi Journal, Ms. Herweck cited the FERC’s approval record as proof that “their mission is to approve everything they can” and also emphasized that the commission is actually funded by the companies it regulates, comparing it to the situation with Wall Street regulators and industry insiders.22
Ms. Herweck’s comments seem to be based on an article published on the Hill by a member of the Delaware Riverkeeper which states:
“FERC has the highest approval rate for the projects submitted to it for approval: 100 percent. That’s right, since 1986 FERC has green-lighted every single proposal the pipeline industry sent its way and up to its Commissioners.”23
Rumblings began in August 2015 amongst local Rio Grande Valley opponents that the FERC is really on the LNG side when the agency decided to group public input meetings for all three proposals instead of holding individual meetings for each one. Given the close proximity of the sites, the decision was said to have been based on efficiency and expediency.24
The agency’s motivations aside, it does seem to hold enormous power when it comes to the future of these projects. In Oregon, where the Columbia Riverkeeper and other activists have been engaged in a lengthy and litigious battle to stop the Oregon LNG project, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals upheld a decision by the county to deny a construction permit for a segment of the pipeline. After the announcement, Oregon LNG CEO Peter Hansen gave an interview stating:
“We have had this ongoing conflict with Clatsop County for years and we knew that they were not going to issue us a local permit, but we don’t need a local permit. It’s a FERC-jurisdication pipeline and its very clear that the local governments do not have jurisdiction and the state is not allowed to give them local jurisdiction.”25
Shortly after, in August 2015, the FERC issued a draft environmental analysis stating:
“FERC’s environmental staff concludes that construction and operation of the projects would result in some adverse environmental impacts. However, most of these would be reduced to less-than-significant levels with the implementation of minimization and mitigation measures proposed by Oregon LNG.”26
Despite delays and setbacks, the Oregon LNG is back on track, with the FERC expected to issue a final Environmental Impact Statement no later than May 2016.
In the end it may be market forces that decide the future of the LNG plants. Low oil prices, increased competition from Russia, and competition from the renewables market, combined with a long regulatory approval process may make LNG plants a financially unviable investment. It is this market volatility that particularly concerns Ms. Herweck. When I asked what she hoped to accomplish via her activism she stated she “wanted people to understand the magnitude of what’s involved.” In her opinion, these companies are asking the community to forever alter its skyline, wildlife, and invest money for a payoff that may never come. If any of these plants are built and then go bust, the community will be stuck with these huge silos and nothing to show for it.29
If Oregon LNG is taken as an example, activists may not be able to stop the project, but they can definitely slow it down. According to a document published by the Columbia Riverkeeper entitled “Citizen’s Guide to Stopping LNG Pipelines on Private Oregon Land”, the original timeline for the Oregon LNG project was set for completion in 2015.27 The company’s website now has completion date of 2021.28
Left unanswered in the battle between the nays and the yays is: if not these plants and the jobs they would provide, then what? Ms. Herweck mentioned nature tourism and renewable energy plants, but local politicians and economic development groups fear that activists will try to block anything that is proposed. A couple of years ago when SpaceX was finalizing their site selection process and Brownsville was in a dead heat with Florida as finalists, local activists began protesting the project out of concerns for the turtles, the birds, and the ocelots.30 A year ago when state and local officials resumed consideration of construction of a second causeway leading to South Padre Island, a project that was deemed necessary 20 years ago which would have significantly reduced three hour wait lines and helped boost tourism, public input meetings were full of activists concerned for the ocelot and other wildlife. In a post-Flint world, can the public afford to be so trusting of government and regulatory agencies to keep them safe and healthy? It’s complicated.