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- Stefanie Herweck
Vela did not respond to repeated interview requests, but one of his first official acts as Congressman was to submit an op-ed to his district’s daily newspapers titled “Exporting liquid natural gas would benefit Texas.” In the column, Vela describes a new Texas economy inspired by the state’s history as a powerfully lucrative place to extract fossil fuels from the earth. Vela is far from an outlier. A host of professors, EDC directors, chamber of commerce presidents, mayors, county commissioners and other South Texas leaders have joined the booster committee. In a letter of support for one of the energy conglomerates trying to build an LNG facility at the Port of Brownsville (one of more than 30 similar letters, often containing the same verbatim phrases) Carlos Cascos, the Cameron County judge recently tapped by Greg Abbott for Secretary of State, writes: “I support the Gulf Coast LNG project because of the significant job creation and positive economic impact it will have in our community. … the project will help the Cameron County community by creating thousands of jobs … all while promoting clean natural gas energy here and around the world.” If LNG is produced at the Port of Brownsville, there will be considerable and measurable economic benefit, mostly in the creation of temporary construction jobs for building pipelines. The actual construction of liquefication facilities—which require the bulk of energy company investment—wouldn’t happen in Brownsville, or even on American soil. Most of these facilities would be built in South Korea and elsewhere, then shipped to Brownsville. The real question for constituents isn’t how many jobs might be gained through LNG development, but how many existing jobs in the eco-tourism industry and how much property value, too, might be lost.
Bill Berg is a retired chair of the UT-Brownsville Engineering Department and one of several dozen local activists who are raising questions about the dangers of LNG development to the Brownsville-South Padre Island coastline. “If the LNG companies are promising jobs, we want to know which jobs and at what pay rate,” Berg said.
Nowhere in Vela’s op-ed, or in the dozens of interviews he’s subsequently given on the topic, has he mentioned any of the potential drawbacks of LNG to the local economy. He doesn’t mention the millions of gallons per day of treated water that will be dumped near the saltwater inlets for the Bahia Grande—27,000 acres of land and 10,000 acres of estuary. It’s the largest estuary restoration project in North America, home to tens of thousands of birds on their migrations to and from Canada and Mexico. The lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the top 10 birding destinations in the U.S., according to numerous rankings, and a stop at the Bahia Grande during a late October dawn demonstrates why.
You wouldn’t build a municipal dump next to the Alamo. And bringing LNG to estuaries near South Padre Island makes just as little sense. SPI is a tiny town that annually generates $6.4 million in property taxes, $6.5 million in hotel-motel taxes and is responsible for $1 billion in economic development and more than 20,000 jobs in an otherwise economically deflated job-poor region. All of SPI’s tourism-related jobs aren’t necessarily great jobs. But some are. Quite a few restaurateurs, boat shop owners, eco-tour entrepreneurs and real estate investors here clear easily more than $200,000 annually. It’s doubtful one LNG job will pay that much money. Though the energy companies tout the creation of thousands of jobs, at most only about 500 of those jobs per LNG plant will be permanent. And in a volatile energy market they’re not necessarily long-term jobs. Unspoken by the industrialists and pro-LNG politicians is the simple truth that if the U.S. government permits these LNG export terminals, Asia and Europe will get America’s natural gas, corporate offices in Houston and Dallas will get the profits, and the Gulf Coast will get the pollution.
A LOSER EITHER WAY
This year, several U.S. cities voted to ban hydraulic fracturing because of health concerns, water and air pollution, and earthquakes. But South Texas leaders are still trumpeting it as the next big thing since big oil. Websites, television commercials and pamphlets promoting the use of natural gas don’t mention that methane—the fossil fuel most associated with hydraulic fracturing—is the supreme greenhouse gas, 21 times more successful at trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide. We’re assured that methane burns much cleaner than coal or oil, which is true, but in its raw state it’s much more destructive to the environment than either. U.S. fracking companies haven’t done a good job of keeping natural gas from escaping into the atmosphere. NASA satellites show a cloud of methane floating over most of the central United States. Perhaps the biggest objection raised by opponents to LNG is that the commodity totally obliterates the potential to use natural gas to reduce global warming, even if fracking operators get well and transportation leaks under control. Federal studies have estimated that in total greenhouse gas emissions, shipping fracked LNG to Asia is worse for the atmosphere than burning coal.
But even if you’re an unmitigated fan of natural gas—even if you believe that the world’s recent unprecedented heat waves, blizzards, tornadoes, floods, hail storms, cyclones, hurricanes and more are part of a cyclical, naturally occurring weather pattern—you might be wary of the plans to export LNG. These companies are trying to lock in foreign buyers while the market is favorable. Most foreign countries haven’t advanced hydraulic fracturing to the level it’s achieved in Texas and other U.S. fields, which are collectively producing a surplus of natural gas. But there’s a short window of opportunity to sell natural gas overseas while prices abroad are high and U.S. supplies are bountiful. Within five years, China, Russia and other countries that are currently paying top dollar for imported natural gas will have increased their own hydraulic fracturing capabilities. Depending on the market and American reserves, the United States could find itself importing natural gas at the highest market prices. Chris Nelder, an energy analyst who blogs at getreallist.com and who contributes to a healthy list of major media on energy topics, has catalogued public misconceptions about natural gas. He’s found that their sources are often industry press releases.