Proposed LNG plants fuel environmental debate

Proposed LNG plants fuel environmental debate

Proposals for the construction of Liquefied Natural Gas export terminals at the Port of Brownsville have raised the hackles of local environmentalists.

The companies behind three proposed LNG terminals holding lease options on the Brownsville Ship Channel announced last month that they had submitted “prefiling” applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency, the initial step in the roughly two-year FERC permitting process.

The prefilings commit the LNG firms to significant investment and indicate a high degree of seriousness in pursuing the projects.

The three companies are Annova LNG, NextDecade and Texas LNG Brownsville, all headquartered in the Houston area. Their plan is to build facilities to convert natural gas into a liquid state (accomplished by chilling it to minus 261 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to shrink its volume for shipment aboard special LNG vessels to overseas markets in Asia and elsewhere.

FERC has permitted six LNG export terminals around the country to date: at Freeport and SabinePass in Texas, and also in Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon and Virginia.

A report from the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club released in December predicts unprecedented environmental damage to the region if the port LNG projects go through.

Stefanie Herweck, the report’s author, Sierra Club chapter spokeswoman and member of the coalition SaveRGVfromLNG, said LNG facilities emit large amounts of airborne pollutants including nitrogen oxides, which give smog its brown color, and volatile organic compounds, which help create smog and in some cases affect health adversely.

LNG is also a “highly hazardous” industry because of the potential for leaks, fires or explosions, she said. While natural gas in its liquefied state isn’t volatile, the propane and other gases used in the liquefaction process are, Herweck said.

“It’s going to be positioned quite close to Port Isabel,” she said. “And the land that they’re going to occupy, the leases that they have, are ‘greenfield’ developments. That means that basically they’re going to take relatively pristine wildlife habitat and change it into an industrial wasteland.”

The Sierra Club also worries about what impact LNG will have on endangered species such as the aplomado falcon and the ocelot. According to the report, ocelots use the area along the lower ship channel to move between the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Boca Chica and the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge north of the channel.

“Losing the connecting habitat will make this trip impossible and may doom the ocelot in Texas,” the report reads.

Eduardo Campirano, port director and CEO, disputes the “industrial wasteland” characterization.

“If we thought that this was going to create an environmental disaster, we wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “Nothing at the moment says that’s the case.”

As for ocelot traffic, if it exists, it’s likely to be accommodated in plans for the facilities, Campirano said. Although each lease encompasses hundreds of acres — 1,000 acres in NextDecade’s case — the plants themselves would occupy only a portion of each lease, he said.

The reason for the FERC process is to answer questions related to the environment, safety and other issues surrounding LNG, Campirano said, adding that he doesn’t think permitting the plants is a foregone conclusion.

“If the economic impact is significant but it’s at the cost of potentially grave environmental consequence, I don’t think the regulators are going to say go ahead and build it,” he said.

Share Button