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Oil and gas flow to Texas coast spawns building, tensions

November 29, 2018

PORT ARANSAS, Texas (AP) — To the east, the Gulf of Mexico stretches out, blue-green and sparkling. To the west and north, flounder and trout meander in a chain of bays. People flock here to fish. Others come to this beach town near Corpus Christi to kayak, parasail or admire the hundreds of bird species on the barrier island, which is deep into rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed 85 percent of the buildings here last year.

A perfect location, from a certain point of view, to put not one but two crude-oil export terminals for ships so big they’re called supertankers.

Those proposals are part of a historic buildout of oil and gas infrastructure in the United States as it becomes a top exporter of both fuels. Texas, home to the most prolific oilfield in the country, is at the epicenter. More than 80 plants, terminals and other projects are in the works or planned up and down the state’s Gulf Coast, from Port Arthur to Brownsville, according to a Center for Public Integrity and Texas Tribune review of corporate plans.

Oil and gas production in the U.S. has skyrocketed, particularly in West Texas. When Congress lifted decades-old federal restrictions on crude exports at the end of 2015, a move that came on the heels of rule changes throwing open the doors for exports of natural gas, it set off a mad dash.

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This story is part of a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, The Texas Tribune, The Associated Press and Newsy.

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Much of the export infrastructure is headed for just two regions: Houston — America’s oil capital — and Corpus Christi, where a port previously focused on oil imports is battling it out with Houston to be the country’s No. 1 location for moving crude to other nations. Each shipped out more than $7 billion in crude during the first nine months of the year, up from less than $1 billion two years earlier, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“At the end of 2015 ... we had the first shipment of crude that was exported,” said John LaRue, executive director of the Port of Corpus Christi. “And now, as I’m sure you know, it’s a constant surge.”

Oil and gas export growth means jobs paying good wages. But it also intensifies a tragic quandary bedeviling the Gulf. Heavy industry there pumps out greenhouse gases warming the climate, upping the risks of powerful storms that, in turn, endanger those same facilities and everything around them. Harvey, which dumped more rain than any other U.S. storm on record, damaged hundreds of thousands of homes in Texas last year, killed at least 68 people and, particularly around Houston, sparked industrial spills, air pollution and explosions.

Many of the new or proposed facilities along the Texas Gulf are in areas that felt Harvey’s bite. A Corpus Christi liquefied natural gas terminal — which just began operations and already has expansions planned — received permits to release up to 5.8 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy group. That’s the equivalent of nearly 1 ½ coal-fired power plants. Other parts of this new supply chain will facilitate greenhouse gases pumped out in Asia and beyond.

“There is some irony or poetic justice, depending on your point of view, in having all these greenhouse-gas emitters being the most vulnerable to climate change, but there are a lot of people living around them, and it’s not such a good deal for them,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former head of civil enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The boom also sets up a clash over the future of the mid-Gulf, a less industrial and more tourism-focused part of the Texas coast than Houston.

From the Port of Corpus Christi’s perspective, the new export business is a huge plus. “You’re going to see more development, more industry, more jobs,” said Eddie Martinez, the port’s business development representative, as he cruised in a boat along the ship channel in June, passing oil tankers and new projects.

But as the growth spills beyond the port’s industrial spine, it’s upending some communities.

The idea of building crude-oil terminals in Port Aransas to serve ships extending the length of four football fields — requiring a much deeper ship channel in that area — has residents and business owners there up in arms.

“Everyone I speak to says they’re against this,” said Neesy Tompkins, who moved to town in 1978 after falling in love with its natural beauty.

This type of development boom on the coast isn’t unprecedented, but it hasn’t happened for decades, said Michael Webber, acting director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We’re seeing massive buildout,” Webber said. “Export infrastructure, chemical infrastructure, you name it.”

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Jamie Smith Hopkins is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. Kiah Collier is a reporter for The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization in Austin, Texas. Center reporter Rachel Leven contributed to this story.

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