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Plans For Massive South Texas Gas Terminals Hit Roadblock In Federal Court

A tanker arrives in the Houston Ship Channel — near a spot where the road now dead ends into water at the San Jacinto battlefield in Houston — on March 6, 2014. The battlefield where Texas won its independence from Mexico is disappearing beneath rising sea levels.
Rick Wilking
A tanker arrives in the Houston Ship Channel — near a spot where the road now dead ends into water at the San Jacinto battlefield in Houston — on March 6, 2014. The battlefield where Texas won its independence from Mexico is disappearing beneath rising sea levels.

A coalition of South Texas organizers, environmental advocates and a non-profit legal group claimed another victory Tuesday in their battle against a planned set of massive liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia told federal regulators to do a better job evaluating the “social cost” of greenhouse gas emissions from the proposed plants.

Jennifer Richards, staff attorney with the non-profit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said the groups were excited by the ruling.

“It’s an order from a court telling federal agencies that they have to take seriously their obligations to evaluate the harms that projects will have on low-income communities and communities of color who have historically borne the burden of industrial development in this country,” she said. “It also tells agencies that they have to take seriously the public’s concerns about climate change.”

The terminals — Rio Grande LNG, Texas LNG and the since-canceled Annova LNG — would receive a huge amount of natural gas from other parts of Texas, process it and load it onto tankers for international export. The plants would be built along the Brownsville Ship Channel in the Rio Grande Valley. Community advocates have raised alarms about the effect of emissions on low-income, majority Latinx residents, as well as the impact of increased shipping traffic on people who rely on fishing and tourism.

The Annova LNG terminal was canceled earlier this year, with major funders pointing to shifts in the global LNG market. Community and environmental advocates claimed the cancellation as a win.

“We’re working internationally to stop the build-out of fracked-gas infrastructure in Texas,” said Rebekah Hinojosa, a Brownsville resident and Sierra Club campaign representative.

“These two proposed LNG terminals would be the first wave of big, massive fossil fuel industry trying to come into our community,” she said. “It's about preserving what's left of the Gulf Coast from flare stacks and storage tanks and tanker ships. We've seen a lot of dangerous safety hazards and cancer clusters in places where this industry is already hulking on the Gulf Coast.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) first approved the plans in 2019, but must now revisit the climate and environmental justice reviews. The court declined to rescind the approvals entirely, and both companies say they expect to proceed with the terminals.

NextDecade, the corporation behind the Rio Grande LNG terminal, issued a press release, saying, in part, “In its conclusion, the Court expressly stated that it is ‘reasonably likely’ that… FERC can address the (issues) ‘while reaching the same result.’”

In a similar vein, a Texas LNG spokesperson wrote, “In addition, the Court writes that it believes that FERC ‘is likely to remedy any deficiencies in its orders…’”

But the political nature of FERC could complicate the picture.

The leadership of the commission has changed since 2019, and the new chairman — Richard Glick, a Democrat — actually dissented against approval of the plans two years ago as a commissioner.

At the time he wrote, “The Commission once again refuses to consider the consequences its actions have for climate change.”

He described the commission’s approach to evaluating greenhouse gas emissions as “indefensible,” and said the cumulative effect of the planned terminals would have a dire impact on endangered species in the area.

Glick also pushed back on the commission’s emphasis on economic development.

“I fully appreciate that the jobs and economic stimulus that a facility like (the Rio Grande LNG terminal) can provide may be especially important in a community facing economic challenges,” he wrote. “But, by the same token, we cannot turn a blind eye to the incremental impact that increased pollution will have on economically disadvantaged communities, which frequently experience a disproportionate toll from the development of new industrial facilities.”

Commissioner and former FERC chairman Neil Chatterjee, a Republican, was among the members who moved to approve the projects. He is set to be replaced by whomever President Joe Biden appoints and the U.S. Senate confirms. The turnover will likely lead to a 3-2 Democratic majority on the commission — a change from the current 3-2 Republican majority.

In a written statement on Tuesday, chairman Glick agreed with the court’s ruling.

“This decision clearly demonstrates that the Commission has the authority and obligation to meaningfully analyze and consider the impacts from (greenhouse gas) emissions and impacts to Environmental Justice communities,” he said. “Moreover, failure to do so puts the Commission’s decisions — and the investments made in reliance on those decisions — in legal peril.”

The ruling could lead to more thorough FERC reviews of proposed LNG terminals across the country.

NextDecade has repeatedly emphasized its plans to use “carbon capture and storage” technology to reduce emissions from the Rio Grande LNG terminal.

A spokesman for Texas LNG wrote that the project has taken steps to be a “market leader” on “environmental justice, energy transition, and climate change,” calling them “some of our most important generational issues.”

Experts have long said that major investments in clean energy — and near-complete divestment from additional fossil fuel projects — are necessary to reduce the type of catastrophic climate change that would lead to global socioeconomic disruption and cause many millions of preventable deaths.

“The fight continues,” Rebekah Hinojosa said.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony