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Gas-Flare_featuredBY STEFANIE HERWECK      

 6.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) per year.

That’s a conservative estimate of how much three proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) companies would pump into the atmosphere each year in order to liquefy their total capacity of gas for export.

That’s more than 40 times the GHGs currently emitted by standing sources in Cameron County.  It’s about as much as two coal-fired power plants would emit in a year, and approximately the same amount of GHG pollution produced to power 900,000 homes with electricity.

In other words, the LNG industrial complex would supersize the carbon footprint of the Rio Grande Valley.

This number includes the GHGs generated by burning natural gas, either at the LNG facilities or at a power plant, in order to fuel the liquefaction process.  It also accounts for the carbon dioxide that will be vented directly into the air during the gas refining process.  None of the LNG facilities have plans to capture this carbon dioxide.  GHGs are also released during the flaring that the companies will do to in order to release pressure from the system.

But the GHGs emitted in conjunction with the LNG terminals themselves are only a part of the total greenhouse gas footprint of LNG exports.

The liquefaction plants will be fed by natural gas extracted through fracking from the Eagle Ford Shale.  We know that natural gas production, especially shale gas production, is a leaky business.  Methane escapes throughout the process of drilling, gathering, refining and transporting the gas.

These so-called “fugitive” emissions have proved difficult to measure.  The EPA’s current official estimate is that 1.6 percent of the natural gas in the supply chain is leaking into atmosphere, but many scientists have criticized this low number, and reports this year (here and here) have suggested the agency is significantly underestimating methane emissions. In fact, aerial and satellite monitoring has detected much larger quantities of methane over shale regions. One such study found the Eagle Ford region could be leaking as much as 9 percent of what it produces into the atmosphere.

This is a serious problem because methane is a super-potent greenhouse gas—its warming potential is 86 times more than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period and 34 times more over 100 years.

LNG exports would certainly intensify this problem.  According to a U.S. Energy Information Administration report, 60 to 80 percent of the gas that LNG companies plan to export would have to come from new production—that means 60 to 80 percent more drilling and fracking in the Eagle Ford Shale and an even greater quantity of methane pollution.

The LNG companies argue that gas exports will still be good for the climate because they will replace coal in Europe and Asia. However, a Department of Energy study, using leakage rates that we now know are too low, found that when we account for the cradle-to-delivery GHG pollution of LNG exports, natural gas isn’t any better for the climate than burning local coal in China.  If we factor in the more likely higher rates of fugitive emissions, LNG exports are worse than coal in both China and Europe.

And what’s bad for the climate is fast becoming bad for business.  According to an analysis issued last week by the financial think-tank Carbon Tracker Initiative, a global agreement to keep warming under two degrees Celsius, which is the ultimate goal of the Paris climate talks, will preclude new major fossil fuel infrastructure projects.  Any carbon-intensive projects like the LNG export terminals risk becoming stranded assets in a world with emission limits.

In fact, the think-tank estimates that “Half of the supply in new LNG projects is unneeded and very little new capacity will be needed in the US and Canada in a 2 degree scenario.”

LNG exports are simply too dirty to be a part of the low- and zero-emissions solutions that we need to avert the most disastrous impacts of climate change.

By embracing and promoting the LNG industrial complex, our politicians and business leaders are chaining the Rio Grande Valley to a dying industry, one that would make the Valley a part of the climate change problem, rather than a region that contributes to climate solutions.

The Rio Grande Valley is a frontline community threatened by the worst ills of climate disruption—coastal flooding due to sea level rise and stronger tropical storms, as well as record-setting heat waves and extreme drought.  In addition to the human suffering these calamities could bring, they could also have severe impacts on our economy.

Investing in the carbon-intensive LNG industry would be fundamentally self-destructive, like someone diagnosed with lung cancer taking up smoking.

As a community we need to demand that our leaders stop ignoring climate change and reject the LNG industrial complex.

That’s why the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club invites the public to join us Sunday, December 6 at 2:00 pm at the Cameron County People’s Climate March at Washington Park in Brownsville.  For more information see the Cameron County People’s Climate March on Facebook.

Stefanie Herweck serves on the executive committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.

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The Sierra Club has learned that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will host a scoping hearing on August 11 regarding the liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities that have been proposed for the Brownsville Ship Channel.  The hearing will run from 1pm until 8pm at the Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center and is open to the public.

It is critical that concerned South Texas residents attend the August 11 meeting and submit comments.

In a highly unusual move, FERC has decided to hold a single scoping meeting for all three of the LNG facilities that have filed so far – Annova LNG, Texas LNG, and Rio Grande LNG (formerly called Next Decade LNG).  Normally separate projects would go through the FERC permitting process separately, and FERC has said that each will be required to develop its own Environmental Impact Statement in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.  The three projects will have different sized footprints (though all will be in sensitive, irreplaceable ecosystems); they will handle and export different amounts of natural gas; they will use different technologies to purify and super-cool the gas; and only one has discussed plans for the pipeline that will bring gas to it.  Holding a combined meeting for all three is certain to sow confusion in the general public.

Map showing the basins and approximate locations of LNG leases.

Map showing the basins and approximate locations of LNG leases.

The Sierra Club has submitted pre-filing comments laying out some key concerns about these three projects:

Sierra Club – Annova LNG FERC comments

Sierra Club – Texas LNG FERC comments

Sierra Club – Next Decade LNG FERC comments

 

While these are three separate projects, the Sierra Club identified a number of negative impacts that are common to all of them.  As pointed out in its comments on Next Decade LNG, these include:

“[All three LNG export facilities] will receive via pipeline from the Eagle Ford fracking wells will only be around 91% or 92% pure methane.  To supercool it for export they need to get that gas to well over 99% pure.  So they will be refining the gas before they refrigerate it, taking out impurities including carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and mercury.  Some of these toxins will be released into the environment.  VOCs such as benzene and toluene are powerful carcinogens and neurotoxins. The only safe level is zero. It is therefore critical that residents know the quantities of these toxins that will be emitted, should the plant be approved, and an air monitoring regime be established.  The prevailing wind will carry the emitted carcinogenic compounds, along with substances that trigger asthma attacks, straight to nearby Laguna Heights, and to Port Isabel’s schools.”

“[All three LNG export facilities] will be built less than 3 miles from the Wal-Mart in Port Isabel, and about 3 miles south of the Port Isabel Junior High and High School.  If there is a breach of either the LNG facility or an LNG tanker there is the potential for the release of a vapor cloud, which in the proper concentration could travel for miles before igniting and burning too intensely for first responders to extinguish.  For this reason Sandia National Laboratories has recommended a 2.2-mile outer hazard zone LNG tanker ships.  Chemical engineer and LNG safety expert Dr. Jerry Havens recommends a 3-mile hazard zone.”

“[All three LNG export facilities] would fill wetlands and destroy mangroves to prepare the site for its export facility.  Wetlands are critical nurseries for fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and other aquatic life that are important both ecologically and commercially.  They also filter runoff and prevent coastal erosion, which reduces turbidity and improves the cleanliness of the water.”

“The industrialization and pollution that [all three LNG facilites] will bring could erode important economic drivers such as commercial fishing, shrimping, and beach and nature tourism. Thousands of jobs here in the Rio Grande Valley depend on clean air, clean water and high quality fish and wildlife habitat.”

There are many, many more impacts, and the scale of the damage varies from project to project.  If one or all of these are built they will inflict tremendous, permanent damage upon the Lower Rio Grande Valley, transforming not only the area around Port Isabel and South Padre Island from places that focus on commercial and sport fishing, beach and nature tourism to polluted industrial zones, but with the dramatic increase in frack wells and pipelines that will feed them transforming the entire region for the worse.

This is why we must all come out and express our concerns about the severe impacts that these projects will have, and ensure that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission does not rubber stamp them.

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fast-track-tpp

By Scott Nicol

The White House has been pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which it calls “the most progressive trade agreement in history.”  But rather than increasing protections for working Americans and the environment, the TPP undermines U.S. labor and environmental laws.

The U.S. Senate, including Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz, recently voted to give President Obama “fast track authority” to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership in secret, with no public or Congressional input.

The Rio Grande Valley’s U.S. Representatives Hinojosa and Vela have said that they oppose fast track, and they deserve applause for taking that stance.

But Representative Cuellar recently penned an op-ed arguing in favor of TPP, saying “I have been a strong supporter of this partnership.”  And when fast track came up for a vote Cuellar was one of just a handful of Democrats who voted for it.

Instead of shilling for multinational oil and gas corporations, Representative Cuellar should stand up for the working men and women who elected him, and air they breathe and the water they drink, and work to defeat “fast track” in the U.S. House.

More than 600 “corporate advisors,” representing multi-national corporations, have been involved in writing the TPP, but the general public has not been allowed to see what they have written.  Members of Congress who read it can be prosecuted if they reveal its contents to the American public.

If this is such a great deal why aren’t we allowed to see it?

Last year a draft version was leaked, and its provisions would undermine workers, the environment, and the rule of law in the United States.

The TPP would allow private foreign corporations to sue sovereign nations for cash compensation, and to overturn any law that they claim would cut into their “expected future profits.”

For example, the Clean Air Act limits the amount of mercury, benzene, and other hazardous pollutants that a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal can emit upwind from an elementary school.  But if that proposed LNG terminal is owned by a company from a TPP country, that company could sue the United States to overturn the law rather than limit its emissions.

Texas LNG, which wants to build an LNG export terminal less than two miles outside of Port Isabel, is partly owned by Samsung.  Samsung is headquartered in South Korea, and South Korea will likely sign on to the TPP.

Multi-national corporations could also sue to overturn worker safety regulations that were intended to prevent their employees from being injured or poisoned on the job on the grounds that they incur cost, and therefore cut into “expected future profits.”

The ability of locals to have a say in whether an LNG export terminal is built in their community would also be curtailed.  Currently the Department of Energy must determine whether or not a proposed LNG export terminal is in the public interest before it can be built.  TPP would grant them automatic approval if their owners claim that the gas was destined for a country that has signed the treaty.

This is why Representatives Hinojosa and Vela have said that they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and why Representative Cuellar should as well.

Under current law the deck is already stacked in these facilities’ favor.  We should strengthen protections for workers and communities, not allow foreign corporations to overrule U.S. sovereignty and sweep away U.S. laws.

Representative Cuellar should reverse course and oppose “fast track” and the larger Trans Pacific Partnership, and fight to preserve laws that protect workers from injury and children from pollution.

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BY STEFANIE HERWECK

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Bahia Grande or “Big Bay” between Brownsville and Port Isabel, Texas was once the center of a vast coastal wetland and prairie habitat.  Its waters were an important nursery for aquatic life, and its islands supported flocks of breeding shorebirds. Birds of prey used the skies above to hunt songbirds flitting through the grasslands.

When the Brownsville ship channel was carved into the shoreline beginning in the 1930s, the bay was cut off from Gulf waters and dried up. Any fish that were able to survive there during wet years were subject to mass die-offs when the unreplenished waters evaporated. Dust from the dry bay bottom was picked up by winds and sandblasted the vegetation off the surrounding prairie, which meant fewer birds. The same dust caused terrible sandstorms in nearby Port Isabel that affected people’s health.

A restoration project for the Bahia finally began in 2005.  A channel was dug from the Brownsville ship channel that allowed the Bahia to flood. Some tidal flow was restored in 2007 when the Bahia was connected to smaller basins–the Laguna Larga and the Little Laguna Madre.  At 22,000 acres, the restoration project is the largest in North America, and was undertaken by a partnership of more than 65 groups.

The restoration is ongoing.  There is still not enough tidal flow through the basins and the salinity is unnaturally high, so more and larger flow channels are in the works.  In 2013, encroaching brush was removed from the prairie to make better habitat for bird species, in particular the endangered Northern aplomado falcon and its prey.

The aplomado is the centerpiece species of the Bahia Grande, and it’s at the center of yet another restoration story. Aplomado falcon numbers plummeted in the early part of the 20th century due mainly to habitat loss, and 1952 saw the last breeding pair in the United States.  The species was federally listed as endangered in 1986. Recovery efforts through the 1990s and 2000s included a captive breeding program that released more than 1,500 birds, and currently more than 30 breeding pairs have been documented in South Texas.

The coming of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals to the Bahia Grande neighborhood could bring an abrupt end to these stories of restoration, however. The Brownsville Navigation District has leased a site on the East boundary of the Bahia Grande Unit to Texas LNG, LLC, between the refuge and the City of Port Isabel. A second site has been leased across Highway 48 from the refuge by Next Decade LNG between the highway and the ship channel, and a third, that of Annova LNG, is located across the ship channel from the Bahia.  A fourth company has leased land further to the west. (See a map.)

These LNG companies intend to pipe large quantities of fracked gas across the Valley to these sites where it will be refined and cooled down to -260 degrees F in order to liquefy and condense it to 1/600th of its original volume.  The liquefied gas will then be piped onto enormous tankers in the ship channel and exported to Europe and in China where gas prices are higher and the companies can make higher profits.

The plants they propose to build adjacent to the Bahia Grande would pump out massive quantities of pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and greenhouse gases. Large quantities of earth would have to be dredged to create turning basins for the ships and to fill in wetlands, and this could create runoff that interferes with the fragile flow of the Bahia Grande Unit’s basins.  Bright lights from the plants will flood the area at night disrupting sensitive wildlife.  Furthermore, each LNG facility will flare gas from a 200- to 500-foot tower, creating more pollution in the form of soot and unburned material, as well as posing an extreme hazard for birds.

The bottom line is that these heavy industrial complexes are fundamentally incompatible with the sensitive habitat and wildlife of the Bahia Grande.  If we are proud of the tremendous work that has gone into restoring the bay and into bringing the Northern aplomado falcon back from the brink, we need to oppose the LNG export terminals with all our might.

Members of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and the Save RGV from LNG citizens’ group took a tour of the Bahia Grande which is recorded in the slideshow above.

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two beach housesPORT ISABEL– People will take to the street in front of the Port Isabel Lighthouse on Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 11:00 am in order to draw attention to the projected impacts of climate change on the south Texas coastline.  Members of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, the Environmental Awareness Club at UTPA, and other concerned citizens want to show coastal residents and beachgoers exactly what the projected three-foot sea level rise means for Port Isabel and South Padre Island and how extracting and burning more fossil fuels will only lead to a greater catastrophe. They join citizens who are gathering Saturday all around the U.S. to express their wish to protect the natural environment and preserve a livable planet for the next generation.

Participants will be wearing snorkels and scuba gear, life-vests and floaties with signs asking “can you swim?” to illustrate the threat of rising waters.  People who stop will be able to take their photo in a “carnival cutout” that shows just how high the Gulf waters are expected to rise.

Laguna Vista resident Rob Nixon said, “Sea level rise is the elephant in the room when it comes to the Valley’s coastal communities.  The fact is that we’re sure to lose much of our beach within the next 40 years, and with it some of our beachfront property.  Yet, ill-advised developments are still going forward, relying on taxpayers to foot the bill for the destruction that’s sure to occur.  By 2100, the remaining land on the island could be subject to being overwashed by the sea during storm surges, and our coastline could be unrecognizable.”

Conservative estimates place sea level rise in the Gulf at three-feet by 2100, which would submerge the beaches and low-lying land around the bay.  But scientists say that without curtailing emissions of heat-trapping gases, global sea level rise could be much greater, as 70% of the world’s fresh water is held by ice caps in Greenland and the Antarctic that are now melting.   Warming seas will expand, adding to sea level rise.  If we continue to burn dirty fossil fuels that warm the planet, our coastal communities could be washed away.

That is why Valley environmentalists are joining “Draw the Line,” a national day of action demanding that President Obama deny the permit for Keystone XL tar sands pipeline,  The pipeline would carry tar sands oil from the boreal forests of Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast where it would be refined and exported.  Independent analysts, environmentalists, and the tar sands industry all agree that Keystone XL will increase emissions and is the lynchpin to the industry’s stated goal of increasing production from today’s 2 million barrels per day (bpd) to 6 million bpd by 2030.[1]  Over the project’s 50-year lifetime, Keystone XL would add between 935 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution to our atmosphere[2] at a time when the World Bank and International Energy Administration are warning that some 66 percent of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground if we are to have even a small chance at stopping the climate crisis and minimizing sea level rise.

Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is good for our Valley communities.  When we invest in clean energy and energy efficiency instead, we reduce energy costs, create millions of new jobs, clean up our air and water, ensure healthier and more prosperous communities, and combat climate change at the same time.

The National Call to Action, called “Draw the Line,” featured scores of creative events, with large rallies planned in areas already affected by climate change and demonstrations against pollution from big oil at refineries across the country.

A full list of events and photos are available at http://act.350.org/event/draw_the_line/ 


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Scott Nicol, Sierra Club Borderlands Team chair and LRGV Sierra Club Conservation co-chair, will be speaking at the University of Texas Pan American on April 25 about the flood risks and environmental damage that will come with new border walls slated for the Rio Grande floodplain.  Through Freedom of Infomation Act requests Scott has uncovered documents showing that Customs and Border Protection plans to condemn private lands and take parts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge to build these walls.  For years the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission rejected these walls as posing too great a flood hazard to communities on both sides of the river, but a year ago they caved in to pressure from CBP and approved walls in the floodplain.

At 6pm on April 25 the Sierra Club will screen the 20 minute film Wild vs. Wall, followed by a discussion of the hazards posed by these new walls.  The event will occur at the UT Pan American Health Auditorium (HSHW 1.404), and is free and open to the public.  You can see a campus map here.

UT Pan American event  poster copy

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By Scott Nicol

Border wall through the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge

Border wall through the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge

I intend to tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill that’s an American solution to an American problem.”

Unfortunately, when Senator Lindsey Graham uttered those words a few days after the presidential election he was talking about the metaphorical wall between the Republican Party and Hispanic voters, not the physical walls that tear through the U.S. – Mexico borderlands.

Last summer the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 1505, waiving environmental laws in National Parks, Monuments, Forests, and Wilderness Areas within 100 miles of both borders for walls or anything else the Border Patrol could dream up.  In the run up to the election Republicans from Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket down to candidates for state offices called for making immigrants’ lives so miserable through measures like Arizona’s SB 1070 that they would “self-deport.”

 

Following the election, in which an overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters rejected Mitt Romney and Republican candidates, these same politicians feel a sudden sense of urgency to pass an immigration reform bill.

That bill will probably look a lot like the proposal that Senators Graham and Schumer were working on a couple of years ago, linking temporary work visas and a pathway to citizenship to increased border militarization.  That may sound familiar because it is the same formula that was used in 2006, when the US House and Senate passed competing immigration bills.  When the two bills could not be reconciled Congress pulled out the border security section and passed it as the Secure Fence Act.

Since then 649 miles of border wall have gone up, slicing through sensitive habitat from California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area to Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

As border walls went up in urban areas like San Diego and El Paso, crossers were “funneled” into the remote and fragile ecosystems of the Arizona desert.  Thousands have died there.

In south Texas border walls now roughly parallel the Rio Grande, ranging from a few hundred yards away to as much as two miles north of its banks.  These walls repeatedly bisect Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife refuge tracts and cut off the last vestiges of sabal palm forest protected by Audubon and the Nature Conservancy.  By blocking movement along the wildlife corridor, border walls may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the ocelot in the United States.

Just this year the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission caved in to pressure from Customs and Border Protection and unilaterally approved new walls in the Rio Grande floodplain, despite objections from Mexico.  If they are built these walls could have serious flood impacts on the communities of Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos in the United States, as well as their sister cities on the southern bank of the river.  They will also carve up more fragile refuge habitat.

This is why the Lone Star chapter continues to support the Sierra Club’s national Borderlands Team’s efforts to head off new damage, ensure that environmental laws are obeyed, and get mitigation for the harm that has already occurred.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform could either be a blessing or a curse for the borderlands.  Allowing immigrants to enter through the “front door,” paying the federal government  instead of a coyote and passing through a port of entry instead of climbing the wall and trekking through the desert, would reduce both the impacts of traffic on fragile ecosystems and the number of immigrants who die attempting to cross.  But if it repeats the old formula, adding more border walls and boots on the ground, it will exacerbate the damage to our borderlands.

We need a clean immigration bill, without more of the walls or waivers that do tremendous damage to border ecosystems year after year.

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To learn more about the environmental impacts of border walls and the work of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team visit www.sierraclub.org/borderlands

 

 

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