By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The energy industry dismisses the fears. Wartime shortages, says ExxonMobil spokesman Bob Davis, led to shoddy construction of the Cleveland terminal. "The facilities we're contemplating for the U.S. are state-of-the-art, with multiple levels of protection," he says. In Japan, 23 terminals function without incident; in the last 30 years, no U.S. terminal has had a serious accident.
But in January, an LNG terminal in Algeria burst into a fire that raged for eight hours; 27 people died and 74 were injured. The accident first was chalked up to a defective boiler and third-world maintenance, but the cause later was determined to be a pipeline leak. And Houston's own Halliburton had signed off on an update of the plant four years ago.
Casi Callaway, an activist who opposed an ExxonMobil terminal planned for Mobile, Alabama, says the Algerian blaze ignited new opposition to the projects. "Before Algeria, the governor said, 'We want a real safety study,' " Callaway says. "After Algeria, most of the community said, 'We don't need a study on Mobile Bay -- we need a study of how far away these things should be.' "
ExxonMobil put its Alabama plans on hold. In March, voters rejected a proposal in Maine, despite a promise of $8 million in annual tax revenue. Even Florida Governor Jeb Bush has suggested that LNG pipelines bound for Florida's Gulf Coast go elsewhere. Many activists now say that the only safe place for terminals is miles offshore.
The energy industry is "stunned," says Bill Powers, an engineer-turned-activist who chairs the Border Power Plant Working Group in San Diego. "All the levers they're accustomed to greasing are falling apart. Now they've got to deal with the people, and they don't know how to do that." Powers has even been invited to speak at industry conferences to offer advice on how to make the projects palatable to communities.
The only project to make it through the permitting process so far is in isolated Hackberry, Louisiana. But several proposals for the Texas coast also have met with little resistance, even those close to cities.
Three proposals are being discussed for Port Arthur and four for Corpus Christi. The only noisy opposition in either area has come from the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers union. The 40 permanent jobs at each terminal aren't worth the risk, says Joe Drexler, director of special projects for the union.
The union's radio commercials in Mobile got people talking. But its efforts in Texas -- including 4,000 handbills delivered to suburban Corpus Christi and full-page newspaper ads -- have fallen flat, Drexler says.
Then there's Quintana. The Quintana Town Council was immediately receptive to a terminal proposed for island property owned by Port Freeport. If the federal regulators concur, it would be only the second U.S. terminal permitted in 30 years -- and bigger than any current terminal. Freeport LNG, the developer, hopes to break ground this summer, says its president, Charles Reimer.
The $300 million project would cover 50 acres and could expand later. The terminal could be operating by 2007, connecting with existing gas lines via a new nine-mile pipeline.
With the largest petrochemical plant in the country just a few miles away, LNG was an easy sell, Reimer says. "Many of the people here have come to accept that this is what fuels the local economy."
The politicians seem to agree. While Alabama Governor Bob Riley, a Republican, pushed for further safety studies in Mobile, Governor Rick Perry has no comment on any of the Texas LNG projects. His spokeswoman referred the Houston Press to two news releases from Perry's office touting ExxonMobil terminals planned for Corpus Christi and Port Arthur -- then failed to return subsequent calls for comment.
"The whole country is outraged by this situation," says union leader Drexler. "Everyone is concerned and crying out against it -- except in Texas."
Says engineer Powers, who grew up in Austin, "I do love Texans, but they're just a herd of sheep right now."
Freeport LNG couldn't bring its project to Quintana without the new bridge. And the Texas Department of Transportation couldn't have built that bridge without a campaign that focused more on industrial and business interests than on residents of the island community.
Since 1958, Quintana had been connected to the mainland by only a rickety swing bridge atop a pontoon boat. It wasn't high enough for Intercoastal Waterway vessels to pass underneath, so even barges could stop vehicle traffic for 20 minutes on FM 1495.
But residents liked it. It kept out development -- and riffraff. "People thought that with a bridge, it would turn into a boom town," says Greg Upton, a 19-year resident.
"People liked being isolated," says Mayor Norvil.
In 1997, the Texas Department of Transportation decided to change that. The swing bridge needed to be manned 24 hours a day, which was expensive, says spokeswoman Janelle Gbur. She adds, "It was not just an idea that was hatched. The community of Quintana supported it."
When pressed, Gbur explains that her definition of "community" includes more than just Quintana residents. She won't say if that means industrial interests, contending that "we weren't looking for local support for the project, although we certainly had it."