BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Students, environmentalists and community leaders are criticizing UT-Rio Grande Valley for entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with NextDecade, LLC.

As first reported in the Rio Grande Guardian, UTRGV and NextDecade have entered into an agreement to promote STEM education. The two entities believe the partnership can foster STEM-based education programs, facilitate research and job training opportunities for UTRGV students, as well as promote collaboration between academia and industry.

NextDecade plans to build a $20 billion liquefied natural gas export terminal at the Port of Brownsville. In addition, the project includes construction of a pipeline running from the Dulce Market area outside of Kingsville, Texas, to the Port – a distance of approximately 137 pipeline miles.

Scott Nicol, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club Borderlands team, said the MOU was a “shameful sellout” by UTRGV.

“Climate change is the gravest threat that the college students of today, and tomorrow, and for generations after, will have to deal with. UTRGV should be researching ways to head off climate change and adapt to that which it is too late to avoid, not getting in bed with what will be the RGV’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses if it is built. So much for all the talk of the ‘new’ University having a bold vision for the future,” Nicol told the Rio Grande Guardian.

If built, the Rio Grande LNG export terminal would be the largest single source of air pollution in Cameron County, according to its expected emissions, Nicol added. He said its construction would require filling in “hundreds of acres of wetlands.” Nicol said it’s in an area that is critical habitat for the endangered ocelot and Aplomado falcon. Nicol said there are also concerns that the view of the industrial landscape and associated pollution could threaten the Valley’s beach and nature tourism industries.

Marisol Cervantes, a psychology major at UTRGV, said she can’t believe her university made the agreement in the light of community opposition. “So many people and even whole towns like Port Isabel and South Padre Island are opposed to these projects. To know that UTRGV supports LNG and does not care about the common concerns makes me sad,” Cervantes said. “As a student attending, I feel that UTRGV has a long way to go when it comes to both being environmentally-conscious and responding to the needs of the community. This is definitely a step in the wrong direction for my school.”

Anxiety about climate change fuels Rose Ouderkirk’s outrage. Ouderkirk is an accounting student at UTRGV. Because LNG export terminals and their associated compressors vent methane and carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere, Ouderkirk said, Rio Grande LNG would also be the largest polluter of greenhouse gases in the county.

“I’m utterly disgusted. A university’s job is to prepare students for the future. But it’s obvious that there just is no future in the fossil fuel industry. It has to die and be replaced by clean, renewable energy if we are going to stop carbon pollution and keep our planet livable,” Ouderkirk said. “Why is my university partnering with an industry that belongs in the past? What are students supposed to learn from this that will help them get the jobs of the future?”

According to Jim Chapman, a leader of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, climate change may be one of the biggest threats facing the students that UTRGV serves. Chapman said the Valley could be subject to many of the worst impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat and drought, as well as stronger tropical storms, flooding and sea level rise.

“If UTRGV wants to help students they should be training them in the renewable energy industry and in fields which work toward climate resilience and mitigation, not sticking their heads in the sand about climate change and accepting funds from the natural gas industry which recently surpassed coal as the top greenhouse gas polluter,” Chapman said.

Chapman said the UTRGV-NextDecade MOU “flies in the face of widespread community opposition, including official opposition by the cities of South Padre Island, Port Isabel, and Laguna Vista. By making deals with LNG, UTRGV is not being sensitive to the communities it serves,” Chapman told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Chapman said the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and Save RGV from LNG are urging students and residents alike to contact President Guy Bailey’s office at (956) 882-8201 and voice their disapproval of the agreement.

Michael Seifert, network weaver for RGV Equal Voice Network, said he did not understand why the original story in the Rio Grande Guardian did not include interviews with some of the “very strong community leaders” opposing the LNG project, and especially the pediatricians who have published multiple papers to the FERC review board explaining, with good science, the “extraordinary risk” that the project poses to the community in general and children in particular.

“The quote from the school of engineering that they are all about ‘compassion, community and technology, in that order,’ was especially odd, given the context and the depth of social and public protest against LNG,” Seifert said.

“It seems like you missed last week’s EPA presentation at UTRGV which addressed the many deficits facing environmental justice in our region – for instance, that there is still no adequate air quality monitors in our area – the LGN applications used data from Corpus Christi.”

On a related note, Yelena Cisneros, a computer information systems student at Texas Southmost College, said she is “deeply concerned” about a letter sent by outgoing TSC President Lily F. Tercero.

“Our president at TSC, Lily F. Tercero a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission expressing support for TSC students working together with Texas LNG. I understand our President’s concern to prepare students for the workforce; however, LNG is known to be hazardous to health and is the wrong business to partner with,” Cisneros said.

Cisneros pointed out that in 2014, an LNG plant storage tank in Washington State leaked injuring many workers and forcing residents within two miles to be evacuated.

“If it had exploded, residents within less than a mile would have been killed,” Cisneros said.

“If something were to go wrong at the Texas LNG terminal, TSC students could be severely harmed. As a TSC student, I believe President Tercero is wrong to make such an important decision without publicized approval from the college board and the support from students and faculty. Students who will be negatively impacted by LNG should have a say whether we work with Texas LNG or not.”

Editor’s Note: The Rio Grande Guardian will publish UT-Rio Grande Valley and NextDecade’s response to the criticism of the MOU in a later edition.

Editor’s Note: Reporter Luis Montoya assisted with this story from Edinburg.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows UTRGV President Guy Bailey and NextDecade founder, chairman and CEO Kathleen Eisbrenner signing a Memorandum of Understanding on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, at the president’s office on the Edinburg Campus. The partnership’s goal is to foster STEM-based education programs, facilitate research and job training opportunities for UTRGV students, and promote collaboration between academia and industry. The photo has been provided courtesy of UTRGV/Paul Chouy.