Mar 28

We Are Cove Point visits the Gulf Coast

A delegation from We Are Cove Point recently visited the Gulf of Mexico to see what’s happening with liquefied natural gas export terminals in different phases along the Gulf coast.

Last spring, a core member of Save RGV from LNG — a group fighting three LNG export terminals proposed to be built in the Rio Grande Valley in the southeastern corner of Texas — came to our Cove Point Spring Break action camp. We learned a lot about each other’s campaigns, as well as that of someone else who came to Cove Point Spring Break from fighting the Jordan Cove LNG export terminal in southwestern Oregon. After the camp, both of them came to Cove Point to see firsthand what we’re working to protect and what the monstrosity Dominion is building here looks like.

Since then, the Texas Sierra Club’s full-time organizer who’s fighting the three export terminals proposed for the Rio Grande Valley came to Cove Point for a tour, and Save RGV from LNG and the Sierra Club have given presentations in the Rio Grande Valley about what’s going on in Cove Point. Overall, we’ve built a relationship through our common struggle of fighting LNG export terminals the gas industry wants to build where we live. It was time for We Are Cove Point to go to Texas!

On the way, we drove through the Louisiana coast. First, we passed the Cameron LNG export terminal that’s being built just outside of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. The road there was a seemingly endless path through marshlands, bayou and massive lakes — perfect for birds, gators, fish and other wildlife to find sanctuary. Instead, we rounded a bend in the road and saw a massive industrial project dominating the horizon, with cranes towering all around it and work trucks constantly pouring in and out. As we drove closer, the scale of the terminal took shape. Dominion’s export terminal at Cove Point is required to stay within the footprint of the much-smaller import terminal that has stood mostly dormant for the last 40 years. We had never seen an export terminal up close that’s given the space to stretch out as it sees fit. It was a sight to behold, standing in the starkest contrast to the serenity of the wetlands all around it.

The construction site of the Cameron LNG export terminal rises out of the surrounding wetlands.

After passing Cameron LNG, we made our way to the actual shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico. Highway 82 travels right along the coast, passing clusters of vacation homes that pop up every so often amid the vast expanses of untouched beaches. We couldn’t help ourselves and stopped at a pull-off at one of the beaches. It was simultaneously breath-taking and heart-breaking to feel the warm breeze and look for oyster shells while knowing we’re right at the edge of a beautiful sacrifice zone, where the oil and gas industries have gotten the go-ahead to basically do whatever they want.

The gorgeous Gulf coast, just minutes east of Sabine Pass

Sure enough, within 10 minutes of getting back in the car, we came upon the Sabine Pass LNG export terminal, the only full-scale LNG export terminal in the United States that’s currently operational. It looked a lot like the Cameron facility, massive in scope, towering over the surrounding coastal ecosystem — but much larger. Since it’s open and active, though, what first stood out were the massive fires coming from the top of two flare stacks on the side of the facility closest to the road. As we got closer, we saw the rest of the structures, as well as the additional liquefaction trains that are under construction — once again requiring those tall cranes, reaching high above everything else, like legs of a giant upside-down spider. It literally looked like we were in Mordor, the fiery wasteland from The Lord of the Rings. We thought we were going to have to take back roads to get close to this terminal, but it was so big, it stretched to border the main highway we were on. We just happened to pass Sabine Pass during a shift change, so a steady stream of white school buses and pickup trucks full of workers were busy spilling out of the property. I couldn’t help but think that Cove Point could see something like this if Dominion is allowed to build more liquefaction trains where Cove Point Park is now.

Coming up on Sabine Pass, the only operational full-scale LNG export terminal in the US

Just after we passed Sabine Pass, Golden Pass LNG came into sight across the river on the Texas side. Golden Pass is an existing LNG import terminal that has been approved to be turned into an export terminal through a $10 billion construction project. The words “Golden Pass” were painted in large colorful letters on one of the storage tanks in a corporate attempt to brighten up an otherwise dreary scene.

Golden Pass LNG, seen from the Louisiana side of the river

The infamous refineries of Port Arthur, Texas, were next on our trip. We ventured through mile after mile of pipes and smoke stacks, fiery flares and noxious clouds of who-knows-what bellowing from dingy metal and concrete skeletons that look they were aesthetically designed to build an orc army in a dystopian industrial future.

The Port Arthur refineries aren’t known for their pleasant visage.

Outside of Houston, we participated in the Extreme Energy Extraction Summit. More than 100 people working against the impacts of extractive industries across North America spent the weekend learning from each other, talking about what works and doesn’t work, and building relationships.

On the first day of the summit, our hosts, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS, took us on a “toxic tour” of the Houston ship channel and the many refineries, chemical plants and other industrial sites in the area. A highlight of the tour was going to Manchester, where nearly 6,000 people, 95 percent of whom are latinx, live in a neighborhood that is only a couple square miles, completely surrounded by industrial facilities that poison the air, water and soil. There is a lot of organizing being done by community members in Manchester to build power in a community that is forced to withstand more than most.

An example of the strong community resistance in the Manchester area. Photo courtesy TEJAS

On our way to the Rio Grande Valley after the summit, we stopped in Quintana to see the Freeport LNG export terminal that’s being built. Quintana is a barrier island just off the coast. There are a few dozen homes and an RV park on the island, all dedicated to getting the most out of Texas beach life. Since the export terminal was proposed, the company forced the island’s residents to sell their homes to the company and move away. Many of those homes were knocked down. Some are rented to LNG workers. The RV park on the north side of the island still caters to tourists looking for a few days at the beach, but the town of Quintana isn’t much of an actual town any more, with Freeport LNG employees even serving on what used to be the town council. Physically, the LNG facility takes up most of the west side of the entire island. The one street that stretches the length of the island is feet away from the LNG property for much of its run. Still, a few people were at the fishing pier on the beach, trying to pretend as much as they could that life is still a little normal. Quintana seems like it was a lovely place to live. It was extremely sad to see how the gas industry basically erased a community.

The view of Freeport LNG from the Quintana Island fishing pier

Just outside of Brownsville, we stayed with some people who have been pouring themselves into stopping the three LNG export terminals planned for their area. We talked about their work to fight tax abatements that the county wanted to give the LNG companies, similar to the sweetheart deal Calvert County gave Dominion when the county really held all of the leverage. Hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes were excused in Calvert County by commissioners who were in far over their heads. It looks like local politicians in the Rio Grande Valley are trying to do the same thing.

We were taken to see the special loma ecosystems around where the LNG terminals would be built. This is in a wetlands area on the southern end of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, just inland from the tourist-centric South Padre Island, sandwiched between nearby communities and the hub of the region’s shrimping industry. All of this would be put in jeopardy if these terminals are built.

Lomas, specifically, are more-or-less hills that rise out of the sandy coastal wetlands. On top of the lomas are arid desert-like ecosystems, even though the edge of the loma can be just feet from the water. It’s a really unique environment, and it attracts animals and plants that don’t exist many other places. Endangered ocelots love this habitat. While we were there, we saw a large tortoise and a Texas horny toad — both endangered. The need to preserve this place was self-evident. It was unimaginable that someone else would look at this and think it was a good idea to wipe this all away to build three export terminals!

Organizers from campaigns to stop LNG terminals in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Oregon’s Jordan Cove and Maryland’s Cove Point stand in front of a threatened loma ecosystem.

After we saw what people were fighting for, we went to an event in Brownsville where we were scheduled to speak. Our friend who has been fighting Jordan Cove LNG in Oregon was in Brownsville with us, too. This was an opportunity for people in the Rio Grande Valley to hear directly from people from Cove Point and Jordan Cove about our experiences fighting this industry in our communities. An article announcing this event was on the front page of that morning’s paper(!), followed by more coverage afterward. I focused my talk on construction impacts and what we’ve been doing to fight the terminal at Cove Point. I remain hopeful that the terminals in the Rio Grande Valley will never get out of the permitting stage, but if they did, I wanted to give people an idea of what to expect — how their lives might be disrupted, as well as some ideas of things they might be able to do about that. (There’s a reason people say “direct action gets the goods.”)

While we were in the area, we had some meetings with local organizers and also took the chance to go to the beach. One thing that can’t go unsaid, though, is the presence of a militarized border in the midst of the RGV’s LNG fight. The border is just a couple blocks from the Sierra Club’s office in Brownsville, where much of the organizing against these terminals takes place. People involved in this struggle are cut off from families and have already had communities torn in two by this barrier. These terminals would be built just a few miles from the border, and the ocelots that people are trying to save — and many other species of plants and animals — are currently prevented by the border wall from fully using their habitat. The gas industry is attempting to have a new dominance over the area, but the border patrol is already set up and trying its best to make everyone know they’re under its watchful eye, impacting people’s lives at each turn.

A gate in the border wall in Brownsville, Texas

On our last morning in the Rio Grande Valley, our hosts took us to the Sabal Palm Sanctuary. The whole region used to be covered in a vast sabal palm ecosystem, but development has eliminated that bit by bit until this sanctuary became some of the last intact sabal palm forests. It felt important to walk through this old-growth sabal palm forest to understand the heart of what people are fighting to protect. However, we had to go through the border wall to get there. The sanctuary is between the border wall and the Rio Grande River. At one point, we were sitting on a bench by the shore of the Rio Grande, taking in the gentle breeze, looking at the lush foliage in Mexico just across the river from us, thinking about border militarization and its impacts, when a border patrol jeep drove noisily down the trail behind us just to let us know it knew we were there. That’s obviously not the biggest impact anyone’s had at the hands of the border patrol, but its presence is designed to be pervasive and intimidating — even in an old-growth forest sanctuary.

Southeastern Texas looked like this before development. This is between the border wall and the Rio Grande River.

Overall, it was incredibly illuminating to see so many LNG export terminals and to dig in a little with a community that is doing all it can to prevent any terminals from being built in its very special corner of the world. I’m honored that folks in the Rio Grande Valley are inspired by the work we’ve done here in Cove Point, and I hope they know they inspire us, as well. For all of the negative impacts the gas industry has had on so many of us, a silver lining is that it’s brought many of our communities together. The more we come together in these fights, the more vibrant all of our lives are — and the more effective we can be in beating back the gas attack.

Big thanks to all who organized or attended the Extreme Energy Extraction summit, TEJAS, Save RGV from LNG, the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, and all of the communities and people who have fought and continue to fight the gas industry everywhere it seeks to impact us.