It would be hard to imagine a project more damaging than NextDecade’s proposed Rio Grande LNG export terminal near Port Isabel, the largest of the five LNG export terminals proposed for the Brownsville ship channel.
The 1,000-acre industrial complex would be among the largest LNG terminals in the United States and would sprawl along Highway 48 from Brownsville to Port Isabel for two and a half miles.
Four 17-story high LNG storage tanks would tower over six enormous natural gas liquefaction “trains”—block mazes of pipes that stretch for hundreds of yards. At only six miles from South Padre Island, the plant would be an industrial blight on the horizon for residents and tourists alike, threatening property values and nature and beach tourism industries that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars and support thousands of jobs.
NextDecade’s plans call for two 300-megawatt gas-fired power plants built onsite to power their operations in addition to two gas-fired turbines within each liquefaction train. This is an astounding amount of energy produced and consumed. In fact, Rio Grande LNG dwarfs Brownsville Public Utility’s Silas Ray Power Plant in its power production and use and, operating at full capacity, could rival the new Tenaska Brownsville 800-megawatt power plant.
But Valley residents will be getting none of the energy and all of the pollution.
Although NextDecade has not reported the pollution they expect Rio Grande LNG to emit, we can easily estimate it based on the expected emissions report by Sabine Pass LNG, another equally large six-train export terminal near Port Arthur that is under construction. Rio Grande LNG could pump out 5,790 tons per year of nitrogen oxides—the chemicals that give smog its brown color and cause respiratory irritation. That’s 300 times more than Brownsville’s Silas Ray power plant emits. It could spew 8,837 tons per year of poisonous carbon monoxide, which is especially harmful to pregnant women and their fetuses. That’s a 15 percent increase in overall carbon monoxide pollution in Cameron County.
We also could expect 305 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per year. VOCs such as benzene and toluene are powerful carcinogens and neurotoxins. The only safe level is zero. Significant emissions of particulate matter and sulfur dioxide are also associated with a plant of this size.
Residents would also be forced to accept the risk of this inherently dangerous fuel. LNG is dangerous because it is such a concentrated source of fuel, and the Rio Grande LNG export terminal will be storing and shipping so much of it. In the event of a spill LNG evaporates and can form a flammable vapor cloud that can drift along the ground for miles before igniting. LNG fires burn so hot that first responders cannot approach, and the fires must burn themselves out.
Rio Grande LNG will also use fuels such as propane and ethylene in the refrigeration process to cool the gas, and these are even more volatile than the methane itself.
NextDecade will send out an estimated six to seven fully-loaded LNG carrier ships each week which will pass within a third of a mile of crowded Isla Blanca Beach and within one mile of Schlitterbahn, putting the county park and water park in the high- and medium-hazard zones developed by Sandia National Laboratories in the case of an intentional breach. Rio Grande LNG’s liquefied natural gas terminal will be built just 2.7 miles from Port Isabel. This is just outside Sandia’s 2.2-mile outer hazard zone, but it violates the three-mile hazard zone recommended by chemical engineer and LNG safety expert Dr. Jerry Havens.
The risks to the public do not end there. The Rio Grande LNG plant would be fed by NextDecade’s new 139-mile long double pipeline with pipes 42 inches in diameter, which would bring natural gas from outside of Corpus Christi through the ranchlands, the Valley and along Highway 48. Along the route, they would build two additional compressor stations to keep the pipeline gas at high pressures. According to the company, this pipe will slice through land owned by 150 families, who will be forced to make way for the double pipeline and its 120-foot right-of-way or have their property condemned under eminent domain.
The gas in these pipelines will not be odorized, making leaks difficult to detect by the public and putting more people at risk. And Texas is sorely lacking in state pipeline inspectors. The Railroad Commission, charged with pipeline safety in Texas, says that it does not have enough inspectors to ensure pipeline safety in the state.
Rio Grande LNG would have harmful effects on wildlife, too. The site’s position between the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge makes it a key component of the wildlife corridor, a decades-long project to connect the Valley’s few remaining areas of habitat. The noise, lights, and activity of the facility would impede wildlife travel, including that of the endangered ocelot, far beyond the terminal’s boundaries.
Over half of the proposed terminal site is made up of wetlands, areas that act as marine nurseries to support fishing stocks. These are so valuable that they are protected by the Clean Water Act. But this protection is limited because the Army Corps of Engineers will allow Next Decade to “mitigate,” often by attempting to recreate or remediate wetlands elsewhere. Such trades are regularly criticized by ecologists who note that the many functions of natural wetlands are not so easily replaced.
“In LNG, everything is big,” according to Kathleen Eisenbrenner, the CEO of NextDecade LNG, and in fact, her Rio Grande LNG project is enormous—a monster that threatens to consume everything that is good about our coastal Texas home—our clean air, our security, and our natural fish and wildlife habitats.
Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian is reaching out to Next Decade founder and CEO Kathleen Eisbrenner and/or Next Decade’s manager of communications, James Markham-Hill for an op-ed giving their side of the LNG for Brownsville story.