With Natural Gas Facilities Coming to Brownsville, Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy

A shrimp boat at the Port of Brownsville in South Texas.
A shrimp boat at the Port of Brownsville in South Texas. Local shrimpers say liquified natural gas facilities could put the local ecosystem — and their livelihoods — in danger.

On a sunny Wednesday morning in July, father Mark Waters blessed a fleet of shrimp boats in Brownsville, telling the crowd gathered that the Texas shrimp business “is a business of the kingdom of heaven” and that “nothing will ever destroy a kingdom-of-heaven business.”

Waters was seeking to reassure shrimpers who are struggling to turn a profit in an industry that has been facing an onslaught of challenges: cheaper foreign imports, heavy competition from farm-raised shrimp and rising labor costs. Now the shrimping business in Brownsville is facing a new threat: liquified natural gas (LNG) plants.

Encouraged by favorable economics, a flock of LNG companies have solicited approval from federal energy regulators to build six export facilities along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana to liquefy natural gas from the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas and export it to Asia and Europe. Among them are three companies — Annova LNG, Texas LNG and NextDecade — that are looking to build massive facilities at the Port of Brownsville. If constructed, the plants would produce a combined 35 million tons of liquefied natural gas every year; NextDecade’s plant would be one of the largest in the country.

The LNG exporters have promised to create hundreds of jobs and ensure that there is minimal damage to the environment. But Lela Burnell, a third-generation shrimper whose family owns a fleet of eight boats, is not convinced. Burnell worries that the companies’ plans will lead to large-scale conversion of wetlands into concrete wastelands, spoiling the unique ecosystem in the region that produces sweeter and larger shrimp.

“The nutrients that come from the Mississippi and Rio Grande make shrimp that have a more robust flavor,” Burnell said. “If the nutrients are being affected, that damages our shrimp catch.”

The LNG plants are also estimated to bring in 10 natural gas tankers a week through the ship channel, with each blocking the channel for about three hours. The traffic will make it difficult for Burnell and other shrimpers to bring their boats in on schedule. To maintain the freshness and flavor of the shrimp, the catch needs to be quickly offloaded. In addition, injuries are common at sea, Burnell said, and if the ship channel is blocked, crew members might not be able to make it back in time to seek medical treatment.

The companies are currently in the early stages of permitting, but they have already won the support of influential Texas politicians. U.S. Senator John Cornyn and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick have both written to federal energy regulators in support of the Texas LNG plant.

For Burnell, politicians’ support for the LNG companies is shortsighted. Brownsville shrimp trawlers bring in 13 to 15 million pounds of shrimp each year worth $50 million to $75 million. Stores like the Burnells’ Shrimp Outlet attract locals and out-of-towners, contributing to the tourism economy in the region.

“I really want to believe that [Cornyn, Patrick and other politicians] are not fully informed and that they’ve been convinced by half-truths from the LNG industry,” Burnell said. “I wouldn’t want to believe that they’re supporting the plants despite knowing what it will do to our communities.”

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 8:00 am CST
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