After years of delays, an industrial developer said on Wednesday that it had funding to proceed with construction of a massive new gas liquefaction plant and export terminal in the wild green fields and wetlands of the Rio Grande delta.
In an announcement, Houston-based NextDecade said it secured $5.9 billion in financing from international partners to begin work on the terminal’s first three compressors to liquify natural gas from Texas’ shale fields for export on global markets.
When completed, five giant compressor units, each designed to process 5.4 million metric tons of liquified natural gas per year, will make the 750-acre Rio Grande LNG facility among the largest gas export terminals in the world.
Its location in the Port of Brownsville-–the last major deepwater port in Texas that remains undeveloped by large fossil fuel projects—will complete the energy sector’s coastal sprawl from Louisiana to Mexico. Once constructed in several years, Rio Grande LNG will join the growing Gulf Coast energy export boom, which has pushed oil and gas production in Texas to record high levels.
In the Wednesday announcement, NextDecade CEO Matt Schatzman called the financing agreement “a landmark event reflecting years of hard work and dedication by NextDecade’s employees, shareholders, construction partners, equipment suppliers, and customers.”
Seven such LNG export terminals have cropped up on U.S. coastlines in the nearly eight years since Congress legalized oil and gas exports, according to the Energy Information Agency. Another three are under construction and another 11 have been approved by federal regulators.
Accompanying the Rio Grande terminal, the planned Rio Bravo Pipeline will deliver 4.5 billion cubic feet of Permian gas per day to the South Texas coast, where compressor trains at Rio Grande LNG will super-cool the gas to -260 degrees Fahrenheit and then load it onto ocean-going tankers for sale overseas. The facility will occupy 750 acres of greenfield, including 182 acres of wetlands, on a 984-acre waterfront tract.
Initially scheduled for completion in 2023, years long delays had plagued the project. Campaigns by local activists and indigenous leaders prompted three French banks, SMBC Group, BNP Paribas and Société Générale, to withdraw their financial commitments. Three nearby municipalities of Laguna Vista, South Padre Island and Port Isabel adopted resolutions opposing the project.
A federal court ordered regulators to modify the conditions of their approval following challenges
by local organizers who hoped to preserve the Rio Grande Delta as the last major inlet on the Gulf Coast of Texas still free from fossil fuel facilities like refineries, chemical plants and terminals.
“The oil and gas companies and the politicians can’t find it in their hearts to keep the industry in an industrial space,” said Lela Burnell, the daughter of a shrimper in the Port of Brownsville and the plaintiff in multiple lawsuits against plans for Rio Grande LNG. “Why do they feel like they need to just inundate and take over the whole coast? They don’t want to leave one spot where there is a sanctuary or a safe zone for nature.”
A Challenge by Local Groups
In the last century, fossil fuel projects have cropped up on almost every major inlet of the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana—from “Cancer Alley,” where the Mississippi River meets the sea, to refinery sectors in Lake Charles, Port Arthur and Houston, where the nation’s largest petrochemical complex lines 44 miles of Galveston Bay.
Further west is Dow Chemical on the mouth of the Brazos, Formosa Plastics on Lavaca Bay, Dow Chemical on San Antonio Bay and the sprawling industrial complex around Nueces and Corpus Christi Bays.
But after that, it’s 160 miles of dunes and beaches, including the nation’s largest stretch of undeveloped barrier island, to the mouth of the Rio Grande—a vast landscape of wetlands with three national wildlife refuges, a state park and the SpaceX rocket factory and launch pad.
Beside the river, the Brownsville Ship Channel runs 17 miles to the Port of Brownsville, the last major deepwater port of Texas without chemical plants, refineries or export terminals.
“There’s not much else except the Port of Brownsville,” said Jordan Blum, editorial director for Hart Energy. “There are just little, completely undeveloped areas like Port Mansfield, Port O’Connor and Sargent.”
NextDecade initially proposed its Rio Grande LNG terminal in December 2015, one week after the legalization of U.S. oil and gas exports. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the plans in 2019, but quickly faced challenges from local and national activist groups.
A coalition of local groups sued in 2020 to challenge the project’s wetlands permits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and again to challenge FERC’s study of the project’s air quality impacts, environmental justice impacts, mitigation measures, greenhouse gas emissions and the commission’s determination that the project was in the public interest.
In August 2021, a federal court in Washington sided with the petitioners and remanded FERC’s approval order, asserting that the commission’s analyses of the projects’ impacts on climate change and environmental justice communities were deficient.
Social Costs of Carbon
The court ordered FERC to produce a calculation of the “social costs” of the project’s carbon emissions, a measure of the estimated future financial impacts created by releasing greenhouse gases today.
FERC determined that the 6.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent released by the export terminal and gas compressors each year would incur global social costs of about $18 billion in 2020 dollars, while the social costs of the Rio Bravo Pipeline were estimated at $2 billion.
“We recognize that the projects’ contributions to [greenhouse gas] emissions globally contribute incrementally to future climate change impacts,” FERC wrote in its April 2023 re-approval of project plans following the court remand.
On Tuesday, the groups filed another lawsuit challenging FERC’s re-approval.
“We believe the future of our community is worth fighting for,” said Jared Hockema, city manager for the City of Port Isabel, in a press release on Tuesday. “With the prospects of environmental degradation, harm to our natural resource-based economy or even an explosive disaster being so high, we are determined to continue this fight. We won’t rest until our community, and our people, are safe.”
NextDecade has also proposed a project to capture some of the facility’s carbon emissions and inject them underground.
The project got a major boost last month when energy giant TotalEnergies announced an investment and purchase agreement with NextDecade, acquiring a $219 million interest in the project. Total, a company from France where fracking is illegal, committed to purchase 5.4 million tons of fracked gas per year from Rio Grande LNG.
In the announcement, Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné said, “Our involvement in this project will add 5.4 million tons per year of LNG to our global portfolio, strengthening our ability to ensure Europe’s security of gas supply, and to provide our Asian customers with an alternative fuel to coal that emits half its CO2 emissions.”
Total touts LNG as a centerpiece effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“LNG can contribute to the transition of our global energy economy towards a lower-carbon future,” the company wrote on its website.
Similar calls from across the energy sector have prompted charges of greenwashing from clean energy and environmental advocates.
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Shruti Shukla, a senior advocate with the National Resource Defense Council in Washington, said energy companies’ efforts to promote LNG around the world were impeding a global energy transition.
“Coal is a fossil fuel just like LNG, so replacing one with the other is not really a replacement, it’s just a continuation,” Shukla said. “Investments in LNG could end up marginalizing investments in cleaner and truly renewable resources that those countries could have.”
Three countries dominate most of the global LNG export market: Australia, Qatar and the U.S. Shukla said the U.S. now exports LNG to 42 countries.
“We just do not have the time or the leisure to wait or delay action on climate,” she said, pointing to the recent record-breaking heatwave in South Texas. “Adding LNG or natural gas to the mix does not help us.”