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Sierra Club leads legal war against LNG projects in Brownsville, Texas

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Sierra Club leads legal war against LNG projects in Brownsville, Texas

The Sierra Club joined a Texas city, local groups and residents to sue federal agencies over authorizations for three proposed LNG export projects that would be sited around Brownsville, Texas, following an opening salvo against NextDecade Corp.'s Rio Grande LNG terminal and a connected pipeline in February.

The legal actions are additional complications for project developers that already face an economic downturn and a difficult global LNG market amid low commodity prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sierra Club, along with local groups the Shrimpers and Fishermen of the RGV and Save RGV from LNG, on March 27 sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the agency's Feb. 21 order granting a Clean Water Act Section 404 permit for the Rio Grande LNG terminal and the related pipeline. "RGV" in the groups' names stands for Texas' Rio Grande Valley.

The groups told the U.S. Appeals Court for the 5th Circuit that the Army Corps failed to require measures that would help avoid or mitigate environmental impacts to wetlands.

Separately on March 27, the Sierra Club; Save RGV from LNG and community group Vecinos para el Bienestar de la Comunidad Costera; and the city of Port Isabel, Texas, filed two lawsuits in the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit. They challenged Natural Gas Act authorizations issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to the developers of the Exelon Corp.-led Annova LNG project and the Texas LNG LLC project. Port Isabel is in the greater Brownsville metropolitan area.

The petitioners argued that the commission's analysis of public need and environmental justice issues were flawed. Environmental justice refers to a statutory requirement that federal agencies must protect low-income and minority populations from unfair or excessive industrial development.

In a central theme of the lawsuits, the groups said the cumulative impacts of the three Brownsville projects would pose a health and safety risk to local communities and harm local industries such as shrimping and eco-tourism.

"It is unacceptable for these agencies to refuse to consider environmental justice and the irreparable harm these projects would cause, and today we continue the fight to hold them accountable and ensure these toxic facilities are never built," Sierra Club senior attorney Nathan Matthews said in a statement.

An attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is representing the community group, also marked environmental justice as a focus of the lawsuits.

"These facilities will unlawfully harm low-income Latino residents who will suffer from the increase in air pollution and shrimpers and fishermen whose livelihoods depend on access to the ship channel and wetlands," Erin Gaines said in the statement. "With these decisions, FERC and the Army Corps have failed to live up to their responsibility to evaluate these harmful impacts."

An Annova LNG spokeswoman did not say how the developer might participate in the litigation, but she did note that the project received its FERC approval only after an "exhaustive review" and input from over 10 federal and state agencies.

"Annova LNG is working to achieve the lowest carbon footprint per pound of production among all U.S. LNG providers," Beth Archer said in an email. "We are focused on sustainable implementation and moving toward a final investment decision that is scheduled for the end of this year."

FERC does not comment on active litigation.

Groups led by the Sierra Club already sued FERC in February over its authorization of the Rio Grande terminal and its pipeline, and they were only waiting for FERC to reject rehearing requests related to the other two Brownsville projects before they sued the commission over these authorizations. FERC denied the rehearing requests Feb. 20. The commission had issued Natural Gas Act certificates to all three projects at a November 2019 meeting.

On Feb. 10, the U.S. Department of Energy issued LNG export licenses to the Brownsville projects and an expansion of Cheniere Energy Inc.'s Corpus Christi LNG terminal that would let them move the fuel to countries without a free trade agreement with the U.S. The DOE authorizations would allow Rio Grande LNG to export 3.61 Bcf/d, Annova LNG to export almost 1 Bcf/d, Texas LNG to export 0.56 Bcf/d and Corpus Christi to export 1.59 Bcf/d from the expansion facilities.

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