Laguna Madre towns oppose LNG

Dina Arévalo | Staff photographer

Dina Arévalo | Staff photographer

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

Citing overwhelming input from residents expressing concern, the Laguna Vista Town Council and the South Padre Island City Council voted unanimously to adopt resolutions opposing the construction of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) export terminals along the Brownsville Ship Channel.

With the end of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) public commenting period approaching on Sept. 4, opponents of the facilities, led by the community coalition, Save RGV from LNG, ramped up campaigns to urge local government entities to examine and oppose the LNG projects.

In response, late last week Laguna Vista posted notice of a special meeting to be held Tuesday to discuss adopting a resolution of opposition. South Padre Island, which was scheduled to hold a regular meeting Wednesday, added a similar item to their agenda.

Laguna Vista Mayor Susie Houston soon announced the location of the meeting would be changed to the outdoor basketball court at Roloff Park behind City Hall in anticipation of a large crowd and, indeed, Tuesday evening, dozens gathered beneath the covered court.

In all, 30 people signed up to speak at Tuesday’s meeting, the most Houston had ever seen, she said afterwards.

Representatives of all three LNG companies – Annova LNG, Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG – currently in the pre-filing process and seeking the recommendation of FERC were present, as well as residents who support the projects. Many of them bore stickers that read ‘I support LNG.’

The LNG supporters were outnumbered, however, by Laguna Madre residents who oppose the facilities. Many wore signs that depicted the letters ‘LNG’ struck through with a thick, diagonal red line, similar to a ‘no smoking’ icon. Those who wished to hold signs or banners were asked to stand at the perimeter of the basketball court. Two such people held a large banner with the words ‘Save RGV from LNG’ above a black and white graphic of an LNG tanker ship.

The meeting began with Councilwoman Wanda Reyes-Rice delivering a comment before recusing herself and leaving the meeting. Several residents had raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest upon learning Reyes-Rice is also employed by Rio Grande LNG. Reyes-Rice assured residents of her commitment to the Laguna Madre community, saying she is a ‘greenie’ like many in the crowd who had concerns about the potential environmental impacts of LNG. The response from several in the crowd led Mayor Houston to call for order.

After Reyes-Rice left, the public comments began.

Brownsville resident Lisa Marie Barocas spoke in favor of LNG. “LNG is safe. Please take the time to read the literature before you make a decision,” she said.

“I, too, would be frustrated with so much misinformation being distributed,” said Exelon Generation representative Jerry Valdez some minutes later. Exelon Generation is the parent company of Annova LNG. “I don’t know why the Council would consider a resolution without all the facts,” he said.

“Wait for the data and then act,” Valdez said.

Misinformation and incomplete information was a common refrain among LNG supporters, who urged the Council to table the discussion pending the completion of the FERC review process. For residents opposed to the projects, however, there was no time to wait. With the commenting deadline approaching at the end of the week, opponents hoped the Council would make a decision in time to submit the opposition resolution to FERC.

“What we’ve heard is that they want you to table this resolution, however they themselves – the LNG companies – are gathering their own resolutions from different companies,” said Laguna Vista resident Diane Teter. Several weeks ago, Annova LNG held a press conference at the Port of Brownsville. In attendance were various entities, including the South Padre Island, Los Fresnos and Brownsville Chambers of Commerce, among others, all pledging support for the project.

Several residents also brought up concerns about the veracity of projected job numbers publicized by at least one of the projects, as well as tax incentives being sought.

“Why should we give them a break?” asked South Padre Island resident Tommy J. Saenz.

Saenz spoke of an application submitted by Annova LNG as it seeks a tax valuation limitation under Section 313 of the State of Texas legal code. To be considered for the tax incentive described by the code, however, a company must include in their application the number of ‘qualified jobs’ it plans to create. A qualified job is described as a permanent, full-time job where an employee works at least 1,600 hours per year.

Numbers revealed in Annova’s application seem to suggest the creation of just 10 qualified jobs. Previously, company representatives have touted Annova LNG would create approximately 165 permanent jobs.

“These are facts filed with the state comptroller,” Saenz said.

Once the final person had spoken, Mayor Houston asked the Council members if they wished to add a comment. With no one speaking up, Houston called for a vote to approve the resolution opposing the LNG projects. The measure passed unanimously, to raucous cheers from the many in the crowd.

“I had heard from a lot of constituents, … and I wanted to go ahead and give the Town Council, the elected officials, an opportunity to vote on this and get it in before the FERC deadlines,” said Houston after the meeting. Houston had called for the special meeting and placed the item on the agenda, she said.

The following day, approximately 100 people filled the South Padre Island city council meeting room to capacity for a similar discussion.

Mayor Pro tem Alex Avalos said, “What really stirred me to do this, No. 1 is we’re coming up on a deadline, but No. 2, I got elected to represent the views of the community, not just my own.” Avalos added the item to the meeting’s agenda.

Just as with the meeting in Laguna Vista, a number of people signed up to give a comment. The Council decided to limit each speaker to two minutes of time, but did allow several speakers to finish their thoughts as their allotted time ran out. In a decision that surprised several people on both sides of the discussion, Avalos called for comments from his fellow council members and a vote before everyone who had signed up had had an opportunity to speak.

“I’ve heard overwhelmingly from my own residents who are concerned,” said Councilman Dennis Stahl. He added that he still had questions about the projects. “I’d like to continue to do more research,” he said.

“I do understand that we are up against a deadline,” Stahl said.

“I think all sides have good points,” said Councilwoman Alita Bagley. “(But), it’s pretty obvious our community has spoken and we speak for them,” she said.

The Council voted unanimously to approve the resolution opposing LNG. Mayor Barry Patel was not present at the meeting.

South Padre Island and Laguna Vista join the City of Port Isabel and the Laguna Madre Water District in officially opposing the projects.

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