- 24 Feb 20
Fracking is a controversial way of extracting natural gas from beneath the earth’s surface. Already proven to have triggered earthquakes, and with a potential to cause numerous other forms of ecological damage, it has been banned in Ireland. So why are they planning to create an LNG facility in the Port of Cork – a development which is opposed by activists along the Rio Grande and in Ireland alike?
An array of quiet, semi-tropical cities are dotted along the Rio Grande Valley, as it winds its way across the edge of the vast expanse of South-West Texas.
At the lowest tip of the United States, on the historically disputed border with Mexico, and nestled beside the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is Brownsville, a city of close to 200,000 inhabitants. The town is enriched with Hispanic mores and famous for its sweltering springs and summers.
Already the quickening heat is draining the Rio Grande itself. But another environmental concern presents an even more immediate, visceral threat to the communities living along the river. And its influence has spread across the Atlantic, to the city beside the River Lee in Ireland.
Largely under the radar, a plan has been hatched to import fracked gas from Brownsville to the Port of Cork. And an unusual alliance has formed in opposition…
Fracking for natural liquified gas (LNG)
The Irish connection began in 2017, when the Port of Cork signed a Memorandum of Understanding with an American company called NextDecade, to develop LNG-receiving infrastructure in the harbour.
Texas and Louisiana are two of the biggest LNG shipping hubs in the world, exporting natural gas to global markets. The global market for LNG is booming: people need energy to fuel the growth on which the world has long been fixated. And to satisfy the demand, gas companies now derive a significant proportion of their product through hydraulic fracturing methods – best known as fracking. Since the 1940s, around one million American wells have been fracked for natural gas. That number is growing.
Fracking is a controversial process, especially in Europe. But demand for gas is high. In the United Kingdom, where eco-friendly policies, including carbon pricing, aim to phase out coal by 2025, the gas market is thriving. In Germany, dormant gas-fired power plants have been returned to service.
In the Republic of Ireland, a ban on fracking came into effect two years ago. However, in many ways, this eco-friendly gesture has been rendered meaningless. To fulfil Ireland’s growing energy needs, the Government has supported proposed LNG projects in Shannon and Cork. It is a move which has led, not unreasonably, to accusations of outright hypocrisy.
Why is fracking so contentious? Many sandstones and shales, far below the earth, contain natural gas, accumulated through the decomposition of dead organisms in the rocks. Fracking is a process used to extract that gas by drilling into rocks and injecting pressurised water, sand and various chemicals to force it out, inevitably disturbing a terrestrial netherworld. The gas can be captured and used as a source of energy – but there are consequences, the scale of which are, almost by definition, unknowable.
Chemicals are added to the pressurised water. They are meant to kill the bacteria and dissolve minerals beneath the earth. The formula, known as the “fracking cocktail”, often includes the use of acids, detergents and poisons. No one knows for sure where this toxic liquid goes, but it is self-evident that there is a risk that these poisons will find their way into the environment, polluting drinking water reservoirs and killing wildlife.
Ever-increasing technological capabilities have added to the concerns, making the process more complicated and harsher on the environment.
Methane gas may also escape as a result of fracking. Both it and the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere through fracking, significantly contribute to the global climate crisis. There is also a remote but real possibility of explosions.
But the hunt for this new gold goes on. What has been dubbed The Gas Rush has brought drillers from across the US to rural Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Texas, bringing money as well as problems to these regions. Saying ‘no’ to that money isn’t always easy – but the fears of those opposed to fracking are both deep and real.
In West Texas, earthquakes prompted by fracking activities have been well-documented and confirmed. According to new figures compiled by the Global Carbon Project, emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide reached a record high in 2019.
Compared to coal, the burning of Natural Gas pumps less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the transportation of LNG can be potentially hazardous. Methane, the main component of natural gas, can leak into the environment during the haulage.
A study published in the journal Science in 2018, revealed that methane leakage from oil and gas operations in the United States was 60 per cent higher than predicted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to the EPA, if methane escapes into the environment before being burnt, over 20 years, it can warm the planet more than 80 times quicker than the same amount of carbon dioxide.
American scientists have also sounded a note of alarm, arguing that over-reliance on natural gas still amounts to cooking the planet, albeit at a slightly slower rate. We are still, they say, on the road to perdition.
Save RGV from LNG
John Young is 78, but a friendly lilt in his voice reassures you of his lively spirit. He moved to Brownsville from Austin, Texas, in the mid-1990s, with his wife Barbara, with whom he shares an email address. In 2005, they moved again, to San Benito, County Cameron, on the lower Rio Grande.
Young is a retired mental health professional, and his wife is a former nurse. They are concerned about the health of their community and its environment. On a quiet Sunday, in May 2014, Barbara Young told her husband about a story aired on their local radio station. It had to do with incoming LNG operations in Rio Grande Valley.
“It said the good news is that LNG export companies want to build and operate here,” Young recalls. “We were told that LNG was a done deal. All our elected officials lined up behind it before it was announced to the public, big money pushing it forward, just the way this sort of thing’s always been done in this small, poor, dumb, backwater part of the world.”
Young and other activists in the region formed a citizen protest group, called Save Rio Grande Valley (RGV) from LNG. The group has been fighting LNG projects since 2014, to almost no avail.
In 2015, a few cities across the region, including Port Isabel, Laguna Vista and South Padre Island, passed resolutions against LNG export operations in Rio Grande. However, as Young recalls, “The LNG companies and Port of Brownsville commissioners ignored the opposition to their big plans for our small part of the world.” Instead, the LNG companies have been incentivised with tax abatements.
Young is worried about “the political takeover” of the county, by natural gas interests. He is also concerned by what he describes as “the air pollution these projects will pump into our air ‘round the clock for the next 30 to 50 years.”
In 2017, Young and other activists at “Save RGV from LNG” learned about NextDecade’s LNG agreement with the Port of Cork. NextDecade are working on three significant LNG projects in Texas. One of these has recently received a federal licence. So far, NextDecade have ignored the concerns expressed by Young and his fellow concerned citizens. Predictably, the company’s website touts the planned LNG projects as clean and safe.
“They treat us like mangy stray dogs to be tossed scraps of meat or just kicked out of their way, as they take over our future and our world,” John Young says bleakly.
When Rebekah came to Cork
Rebekah Hinojosa, 28, lives in Brownsville. A member of “Save RGV from LNG”, with dark hair, and quietly intent eyes, she travelled to Cork in December to link up with Irish environmental activists.
Used to the scorching sun of the Rio Grande Valley, Hinojosa who was feeling the strength of Irish winters, stood in solidarity with Irish eco-campaigners at the Port of Cork.
On a foggy Friday morning, members of Extinction Rebellion Cork, campaigners at Dublin-based anti-fracking group, “Not Here, Not Anywhere” and teenage climate activists circled around Hinojosa as she spoke.
“We’ve got your backs in Texas,” she told them. “We’re doing everything we can to stop this. All of our communities are against it: we don’t want to breathe the pollution, we don’t want our communities to be sacrificed for fracked gas export.”
Hinojosa met with officials from the harbour company, and delivered a petition signed by almost 3,500 people, opposing the Cork LNG project.
She says that Port officials were “appreciative to hear from me”. But she is not optimistic: “They did not voice any commitment to stop the project.”
Hinojosa got involved in the campaign when she was 24. Her love for the Rio Grande basin fuelled her fight against fracking.
“I’m born and raised there,” she tells me. “All of my family still live there. We’ve been in South Texas for generations. The beach has always been clean, and our coastline has always been pristine, and we treasure that. I was worried about the future.”
Rebekah sees Ireland as an eco-friendlier country than the US. However, the Government has trailered what campaigners see as a draconian Planning Bill, which will make it difficult for citizen environmental groups to challenge planning decisions with potential environmentally adverse consequences.
The bill – brought forward by the outgoing Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy – would limit people’s ability to bring Judicial Review proceedings against planning decisions.
This move by the Government followed a recent High Court ruling that quashed permission for the construction of a plastic factory in Skibbereen, west Cork.
A local citizen group, SOS Skibbereen, had successfully fundraised to finance a High Court challenge. To support the cause, local musicians released an album, Save Our Skibbereen. One song on it, ‘Dear Mr Factory’, was written and performed by local musician Simon Lockwood. Had the plastic factory plans been allowed to proceed, Lockwood’s backyard would have been turned into a plastics manufacturing plant.
Shortly after the High Court decision was announced, RTP Company, the American plastic maker behind the project, withdrew its planning application.
Hearing this story, Rebekah Hinojosa’s voice is ablaze with hope. “We can also pressure the banks to stop financing fracking and LNG projects,” she insists.
As with the Skibbereen campaign, South Texas musicians have lent their support to “Save RGV from LNG”. Lucinda Wierenga, a musician from South Padre Island, has written a song called ‘No LNG’.
In a video uploaded on YouTube, she can be seen playing the ukulele and asking someone behind the lens, “Hey Joel, what’s this I hear about LNG?”
The man replies, “It’s liquid natural gas. They gonna pipe it in, and they gonna ship it back out.”
Lucinda proceeds to sing, “No LNG, No LNG, nobody wants that ol’ LNG.”
Donald Trump & Christy's climate awakening
Christy Tovar, 43, is a mother of five. She belongs to South Texas’s Evangelical community. They are mostly fervent supporters of the U.S. President, Donald Trump.
Her husband’s family all come from Mexico, just across the border. The first time Tovar heard Trump making racist remarks about Mexicans, she was outraged and disheartened.
“It provoked me. It sent me on a journey to question other beliefs that my community holds,” she says.
She realised that climate change was a real threat, looming over the future of her own children.
“I learned more about climate change and the scientific consensus around it,” she says. “It was eye-opening. Just to think what the future would be like for them was terrifying for me.”
Ever since, Tovar and her family have boycotted air travel, hoping to reduce their carbon footprint. She’s worried about the emission of greenhouse gases through both the process of fracking and the export of LNG.
“Fracking hurts people, it contaminates water, the children get sick, and benzene will be emitted from these frack wells,” she says. Her eyes brim with concern.
Following her climate awakening, Tovar joined “Save RGV from LNG”. She used to be a teacher before taking a break to mind her young children. That has made her reluctant to go as far as fighting the project to the point where she might be arrested.
“But I’m willing to pick up the people who get arrested from jail,” she says. “I honestly wish I could put my own life on the line, but I can’t because of my children.”
Should we stop having children for the sake of the world? The green-minded mother nods and smiles. It is a tough question.
“I had my children before I accepted the truth about climate change,” she says. “But I feel like we need something to fight for, we need something to hope for. If there were no children, there would be no future.”
Tovar hopes that resistance across Rio Grande Valley will help to stop the Cork LNG project, pointing out that Ireland – “with its strong winds and waves” – must rely on renewables.
“You guys have this ban on fracking,” she says, “but that is kind of hypocritical on the part of the Irish Government to import fracked gas at the same time.”
Alan O’Connor, a Green Party County Councillor for Cobh municipality, refers to both proposed projects in Shannon and Cork as “selfish”.
O’Connor, an environmental scientist, has drafted a motion against the Port of Cork LNG Project. His proposal was recently passed by Cobh Council, with no dissent. A similar motion, proposed by the Greens, passed in Cork City Council.
O’Connor, who appears calm and thoughtful, agrees with Christy Tovar.
“We have banned fracking, but we can’t turn our backs on the effects of fracking on communities elsewhere,” he says. “It’s removing ourselves from a situation that is not affecting us. I think it is selfish. I think this line of thinking pervades our approach to environmental crises.”
Port of Cork is a State-owned company. The Minister for Transport and the Minister for Finance are its main shareholders on behalf of the Irish people. O’Connor argues that these Ministers can – and should – use their influence to stop the project.
“The council doesn’t have the power to tell the Port of Cork to do this or that,” O’Connor says, “but we hope that this motion will bring the public dissatisfaction to the Ministers’ attention.”
O’Connor also urges the Minister for the Environment and Climate Action, currently Richard Bruton, to intervene.
In a statement to Hot Press, a spokesperson for the Port of Cork said they would “not be making a comment on this at this time.”
The trouble with for-profit semi-state companies
Dominick Donnelly is a secondary school teacher and an avid eco-campaigner. He argues that the for-profit nature of many State-owned companies compels them to become divorced from their public duties and begin pursuing revenue-streams.
“We have gotten zero information from them about the project so far,” he says. “The way I see it, their only motivation is money.”
Donnelly has been following developments in the Cork LNG project since its proposal in 2017. John Young found him on Facebook in the same year.
“We have been in contact through email since then,” Donnelly says.
He dismisses our ban on fracking as “largely symbolic.”
We, the Irish public, Donnelly says, may not have to deal with the adverse consequence of fracking, but we need to consider the American communities who are going to suffer.
“NextDecade is buying the gas to export from the US market, and most of the gas in the US market is fracked gas,” he says. “Our climate strategies are all over the shop. How much do you think most politicians understand about climate change? How much do they care?”
It is intended as a rhetorical question.
Cork teenage activists against LNG
During the latest student climate rally in November, student activists demanded an end to LNG projects in Cork and Shannon.
Seventeen-year-old Saoi O’Connor – she has been described as Ireland’s Greta Thunberg – began protesting about climate inaction almost a year ago. She travels from her hometown of Skibbereen to Cork city every Friday, holding a climate vigil outside Cork City Council with a placard that reads: “The Emperor has no Clothes”.
Saoi’s placard – its sentiment borrowed from Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tome underscoring youth’s ability to point out inconvenient truths to adults – has become a symbol of the student climate movement in Ireland. Short-haired and rebellious, Saoi grabbed a megaphone during last November’s climate rally to voice her concerns about proposed LNG projects.
“We will not allow the Irish Government’s flagrant hypocrisy to stand any longer,” she said. “We will not allow them to harm communities in the United States to power this country. We will not allow them to have high carbon, high greenhouse-gas-emitting fuel in this country in 2020 or ever again.”
The young crowd cheered.
During the rally, Saoi and hundreds of other schoolchildren in Cork shouted: “LNG, don’t You Dare/ Shannon, Cork or anywhere.”
Saoi has met with Minister Bruton to discuss the issue. She doesn’t believe that he has any plans to intervene and stop the proposed developments.
“They are locking the whole country into a high-emission future energy for the next decade. So, they’re building LNG terminals,” she says. “Ireland has banned fracking, because it does harm the lands nearby, and the communities nearby – and yet we are okay with importing gas that has been fracked out of the ground in America.
“We can’t be okay with that,” she insists.
Saoi has been the target of online hate, from male adults on Twitter.
“Some people have never been fans of young women who speak their minds and come across strongly,” she laughs.
At the end of Cork’s November climate rally, she proclaimed the triumph of the Generation Z.
“They call us Generation Z like we’re the last generation,” she said. “And I have to say as depressing as that is, I look at this crowd, and I think: if these are the last days of humanity, then by god, they are bright.”