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Company behind Rio Grande LNG ghostwrote support letters to FERC for RGV public officials

The Rio Grande LNG site outside of Port Isabel, Texas.
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
The Rio Grande LNG site outside of Port Isabel, Texas.

In March, several Rio Grande Valley public officials and industry leaders signed letters of support for Rio Grande LNG — a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export plant slated for construction in the Port of Brownsville — urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve the project. But they did not write any of the letters.

First reported by DeSmog, RioGrande LNG’s parent company, Houston-based NextDecade, approached the officials with draft letters asking for support as FERC analyzed the environmental impacts of the project for a second time.

NextDecade gave the officials an option to edit the draft letter before sending it to FERC. Almost all signed the letters as is with minimal edits.

Submitted around the same time in mid-March, letters came from Cameron County elected officials, the CEO of the Valley Regional Hospital system, the mayor and city manager of Los Fresnos, the City of Brownsville’s fire chief, the director of the Port Isabel-San Benito Navigation District, and every member of the Port of Brownsville Commission.

A letter also came from Bettina Tolin, who signed as the owner of the now-closed Marcello’s Restaurant in Port Isabel. Tolin is a council member for Laguna Vista, a town neighboring Port Isabel that has signed resolutions against LNG plants in the past.

None of those officials responded to TPR’s requests for comment.

The gate of the Rio Grande LNG facility outside of Port Isabel, Texas.
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
The gate of the Rio Grande LNG facility outside of Port Isabel, Texas.

An open records request for the emails between NextDecade and Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino and Cameron County Commissioner Sofia Benavides was sent to the Texas Attorney General’s office. Citing possible “proprietary information or sensitive security information,” Cameron County withheld the emails and asked for the state attorney general's opinion on whether the information should be disclosed.

Neither Treviño nor Benavides responded to TPR’s requests for comment. The City of Brownsville did not respond to TPR's requests for more information.

Differing from the rest, a letter signed by Cledine Hernandez, vice chancellor and chief external relations officer of Texas State Technical College (TSTC), used only the first paragraph of the draft provided by NextDecade.

A spokesperson for TSTC told TPR that Hernandez opted not to use the entire draft because of TSTC's mission to provide “excellent training and to place Texans in great paying jobs,” and how “the LNG program would benefit TSTC students.”

Besides Hernandez’s letter, the others urged FERC Chairman Willie Phillips to approve the project as it faced “regulatory uncertainty.”

This phrase referenced a 2021 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia that said that FERC failed to measure the climate and environmental justice impacts the proposed LNG plants would have on the surrounding Laguna Madre and Brownsville area. The court ruled that FERC had violated the National Environmental Policy Act and needed to reanalyze the projects’ impacts.

The Sierra Club, the city of Port Isabel, Vecinos para el Bienestar de la Comunidad Costera — a group of Laguna Heights residents — and Save RGV from LNG, a nonprofit organization, brought on the lawsuit against FERC.

But just a month after the letters from these officials were submitted, FERC granted Rio Grande LNG — along with neighboring project Texas LNG and the associated Rio Bravo Pipeline — approval on April 21. The same groups who brought on the lawsuit filed for a rehearing, but FERC denied the request. The attorneys for the groups are planning their next step.

Gas companies ghostwriting on behalf of elected officials is not unheard of.

In Louisiana, DeSmog reported that officials there also signed letters written by an LNG company to push FERC to authorize a stalled project. The same has happened in East Coast states, all while scientists with the United Nations (UN) are warning countries to stop creating new fossil fuel industries or face irreversible climate damage.

Leaders in cities neighboring the LNG facilities, like Port Isabel, are criticizing the local officials who signed the NextDecade-written letters.

The Port Isabel Lighthouse at sunset.
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
The Port Isabel Lighthouse at sunset.

“I think that really, really rankles people here in Port Isabel, to see somebody from another city writing a letter saying, ‘hey, you know what? You ought to hurry up and put this polluting, dangerous facility in somebody else's town,’” Port Isabel City Manager Jared Hockema told TPR.

While NextDecade did not reach out to Hockema to write a letter, he said NextDecade reached out to him and the City of Port Isabel in the past, asking him to be on an advisory board. Hockema declined, saying he and the city are opposed to LNG plants and did not want to give the impression that they supported them.

Hockema particularly criticized a letter signed by the City of Brownsville Fire Chief Jarrett Sheldon supporting the project, saying neither Brownsville or Port Isabel had the capability to put out a fire at an LNG plant if one happened.

“So he's actually promoting the development of a facility that he can't deal with if it were to go wrong. And we've seen them go wrong repeatedly, including last year up the coast here in Texas,” he said.

Hockema is referring to a 2022 explosion at Freeport LNG, an LNG export plant in Freeport, Texas.

In line with the risks associated with the plants, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled FERC needed to explain the scope of its environmental justice analysis. The court found FERC’s initial analysis deficient, referring to the agency acknowledging previously that the impacts would extend past the two miles surrounding the plant.

NextDecade’s draft letter describes the required climate and environmental justice analyses associated with the ruling as “two narrow technical items,” saying the company had responded to FERC’s information requests but had yet to hear from them after 19 months.

The letters also describe that residents of the Brownsville area “unequivocally” support the LNG projects and repeat NextDecade’s claim that Rio Grande LNG is designed to emit low greenhouse gasses.

However, residents of the Rio Grande Valley and beyond have protested LNG projects from establishing in the area since 2015. Port Isabel’s school district has voted against tax abatements for LNG plants twice. Along with Laguna Vista, South Padre Island and Port Isabel have signed resolutions against LNG projects in the area. Organizers against the plants have pointed to the pollution and land destruction the plants would–and have already started to–cause.

Rio Grande LNG began clearing land and soil mixing last October, destroying lomas and angering local environmentalists and the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, whose sacred lands stretch across the wetlands that surround the LNG plant sites.

In a statement, NextDecade told TPR that the portion of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe’s ancestral village, Garcia Pasture, that is inside Rio Grande LNG’s property boundary, is 1,000 feet away from the plant itself. The company says it will not disturb the site, and it is preserving 1,500 acres of lomas (wind-blown clay dunes that are thousands of years old). Save RGV has criticized these mitigation efforts, saying wetlands and lomas would still be destroyed.

Regardless, the tribe and organizers do not want the LNG plants in the Port of Brownsville area at all, successfully organizing one to shut down even as local officials continue supporting them.

"Our community has spoken out against the Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG projects time and time again, and community opposition successfully stopped the Town of Rancho Viejo from signing one of these letters last year,” said Bekah Hinojosa, senior Gulf Coast campaign representative for the Sierra Club, in a statement to TPR. “We will continue to speak out to any public official that considers supporting this industry that would destroy our coastline and threaten our health with pollution."

Aldermen of the Town of Rancho Viejo motioned during an October 2022 council meeting to declare their support for Texas LNG, via a letter drafted by Mayor Maribel Guerrero. Guerrero was a public relations specialist for Annova LNG, the now-canceled LNG project that was supposed to operate alongside the two other LNG plants. Organizers from the Sierra Club and Save RGV protested and petitioned the letter. The aldermen tabled the letter this past December and have not brought it back to a town meeting since.

Jennifer Richards, an attorney representing Laguna Heights, Texas, residents in the group Vecinos para el Bienestar de la Comunidad Costera in the lawsuit against FERC, said NextDecade’s ghostwriting campaign has revealed an unfair power dynamic between gas companies and the public.

“It certainly was a concerted effort, it seems, to apply pressure to FERC to issue an authorization, even though there is significant community resistance to these projects and has been a sustained resistance for many years,” Richards told TPR. “There does seem to be some conflict, at least between what some of the elected officials are representing to FERC versus what the people actually living near the facilities want.”

 The entrance sign of Bejarano McFarland Memorial Park in Laguna Heights, Texas, one of the communities
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
The entrance sign of Bejarano McFarland Memorial Park in Laguna Heights, Texas, one of the communities that would be adversely affected by LNG plants.

In their request for rehearing, Richards and the other attorneys point to FERC acknowledging that not only would more “environmental justice communities” be impacted by the LNG plants–367 in total—but that particulate matter pollution created during construction would potentially exceed federal standards. The attorneys said these findings should necessitate a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), citing a 2010 lawsuit with a ruling that “an SEIS is required where new information directly contradicts previously published NEPA documents.” FERC also lists the same cause for an SEIS in their regulations.

An SEIS would likely take some time to complete and put a halt to the project.

FERC Commissioner Allison Clements echoed this sentiment after the board voted to approve Rio Grande LNG, Texas LNG and the associated Rio Bravo Pipeline. She was the only commissioner to vote no on the order.

“By failing to issue a supplemental EIS and instead tucking this revised safety and environmental analyses into the body and appendices of today's order, the Commission has created an incomplete and inadequate record and lacks a basis for reasoned decision-making,” Clements said to the board, saying the order for approving the projects was “procedural corner-cutting.”

Referring to an environmental justice roundtable discussion hosted by FERC just a month prior to the commission’s approval, Clements said FERC’s order to approve the projects was “a gobsmacking departure” from what she learned there.

NextDecade has hosted public info sessions in the last few months to try garnering support for the projects, displaying the chemical properties of LNG and promoting a planned Carbon Capture System (CCS). The CCS, according to Rio Grande LNG, is to make the project the “greenest” LNG export plant in the world.

NextDecade said, through the CCS, it can store 90% of the CO2 emissions that come from the Rio Grande LNG plant. NextDecade has yet to find a place to store the carbon, however. If the CCS does become active, it would not filter out the several other pollutants that Rio Grande LNG would emit.

Because of this, activists against Rio Grande LNG and experts have said that CCS is a form of “greenwashing.”

A sign protesting LNG plants outside the Port Isabel Events and Cultural Center on Sept 27, 2022. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was holding a public comment period for Rio Grande LNG's Carbon Capture System (CCS).
Gaige Davila
/
TPR
A sign protesting LNG plants outside the Port Isabel Events and Cultural Center on Sept 27, 2022. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was holding a public comment period for Rio Grande LNG's Carbon Capture System (CCS).

FERC suspended an environmental review of the Rio Grande LNG CCS because the company could not provide enough information on the system in time for the agency’s assessment. This happened a week before FERC approved the Rio Grande LNG project, without the CCS. This may cause Rio Grande LNG to not build the CCS at all. According to NextDecade’s FERC filing from August 2022, the CCS is a “voluntary effort” that could not be built for “any number of reasons.”

NextDecade plans to reach a Final Investment Decision (FID)—or decision from investors to go ahead with the project—at the end of June. In mid-June, NextDecade secured two investors that would bring them closer to an FID. Since last year, NextDecade has signed LNG export contracts with companies from China, Portugal, Japan, Singapore and the U.S. company ExxonMobil.

NextDecade also secured a contract with French gas supplier Engie, two years after the energy company backed out of a deal. The first phase of the plant’s build, which would include three trains running LNG from the Rio Bravo Pipeline, would cost $11.5 billion.

Hockema says the city will continue opposing the facilities in court.

“We have literally been the David fighting Goliath. We've been very successful so far,” Hockema said of the lawsuits causing delays for the plants. “The people here in Port Isabel get up every day and go to work, and they go to work to make it that next day, to take care of their family. And so every day that we stop pollution from impacting their lives and their children's lives, every day that we stop this pollution, this danger from putting people at risk, every day we keep those jobs available, is a victory.”

NextDecade did not respond to TPR’s request for comment.

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