I-Team Report: LNG Under Pressure Part 1

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BROWNSVILLE - Three industrial projects could change the lives of Cameron County residents forever. Investors want to build huge liquefied natural gas terminals along the Brownsville Ship Channel.

The LNG plants would convert natural gas to liquid, so it can be loaded onto tanker ships for export overseas. The stakes are enormous for the Rio Grande Valley, especially for people who live in coastal Cameron County.

Billions of dollars would boost the economy. Potentially risky industrial projects would permanently alter a fragile ecosystem.

The largest of the three projects is Rio Grande LNG.

“It is a proposed eight plus billion dollar facility,” said James Markham with Rio Grande LNG.

Rio Grande LNG projects its effort would support 4,000 to 6,000 construction jobs.

“Over 200 well paid full-time jobs and many, many more indirect benefits,” Markham said.

Annova LNG claims it would spend $2.9 billion on construction.

“I think anything that brings and economic shot in the arm to the Valley is a good thing,” said Bill Harris, Exelon senior communications manager.

Annova LNG said they would support 675 construction jobs and 165 permanent jobs.

“This is 165 really high-paying jobs for this area,” Harris said. “That’s more than double the normal annual salary of the people that work in the Rio Grande Valley.”

Texas LNG said it would become the largest taxpayer in Cameron County. The company plans a $1 billion initial investment, 600 construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs.

The numbers don’t add up for some Cameron County residents.

“I haven't heard any of the companies say that 100 percent of their jobs will be living wage jobs,” said Bill Berg, Brownsville resident. “We need people who can afford to buy houses. But they'll never get there, if they have to have a minimum wage job,” he said.

“These are going to be the people who are going to clean and provide the security service for these companies.”

“We have strong fishing and eco-tourism industries, and I’m not sure that the economic tradeoff is going to support putting in the LNG plants,” said Garry Stebbins, Port Isabel resident.

The people who would be most affected would be those who live or work closest to the LNG plants.

The cities of Laguna Vista, South Padre Island and Port Isabel officially came out against LNG projects. Residents in the areas question whether promised economic benefits will be worth the risk to their businesses, families and quality of life.

Ford Lockett owns Fins 2 Feathers Dolphin Watching in Port Isabel. He takes customers into the Brownsville Ship Channel along the shorelines, where companies want to build LNG facilities.

“This ship channel would be shut down when these ships are coming in and out the channel, and that would definitely have an impact on my business,” Lockett said.

Rio Grande LNG and Annova LNG would have their facilities in different areas.

“I think there will be big profits made by a few large companies, and there would be a negative impact on some small business owners such as myself,” Lockett said.

Past the end of the ship channel, at the tip of Port Isabel, is Long Island Village. It’s a private community with about 1,000 homes. Some of the homes live right down the channel. That’s toward where the LNG plants will be built.

Flora Gunderson lives in the Long Island Village area.

“We bought here, because we had peace and quiet,” Gunderson said. “We don't have light pollution. We don't have any kind of thing that affects the quality of our life.”

Gunderson and her husband moved to the Valley from Texas City. An explosion at an oil refinery killed 15 people and injured her husband there.

“The mushroom cloud went up, and you could just feel it rolling through the house,” Gunderson said. “There's nothing here that I think is going to go boom again. Just the thought of the possibility of living through that again is more than I can handle.”

The LNG companies said they will submit formal applications to start building early next year. The approval process takes 18 month to two years to complete. Approval to build would come from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Link: FERC Environmental Impact Statement on Corpus Christi LNG Project