In February, members of the Texas Railroad Commission finally got the message. The three commissioners of the regulatory body that oversees the state’s oil and gas sector voted to crack down on flaring, a practice whereby producers burn usable natural gas they don’t have the capacity to transport. In Texas, flaring releases literal tons of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere each year.
It was a strange decision, considering the Commission has approved 35,000 flaring permits since 2013 without a single denial. Last year, voters elected Jim Wright to the Commission, a climate change denier and oil and gas businessman who has racked up thousands of dollars in pollution fines.
So why did the commissioners do an about-face on flaring this winter? One answer: Environmental activists used their international muscle to hit the Texas gas industry in the wallet.
For years, the construction of three liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminals near Brownsville, in the Rio Grande Valley, has riled up environmentalists and community organizers who don’t want the polluting infrastructure built near communities of color who would have to breathe in the fumes. The three projects also stand to threaten the sensitive wetlands rich with biodiversity along the South Texas coast. But for the last five years, elected state leaders have largely steamrolled over citizens’ concerns.
“The way they make these decisions is a form of colonialism, where they hold power to make financial and environmentally destructive decisions,” says Christopher Basaldú, an organizer with the Sierra Club who is a member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe.
Despite protests from Basaldú and others, the state permitted the terminal projects anyway. So activists took their fight overseas three years ago. Much of the LNG processed in Brownsville would have been shipped to European countries such as France, Ireland, Germany, and Sweden, where politicians have been vocal about reducing greenhouse gases. Hydraulic fracturing, for instance, has already been banned in those countries.
“What we’re trying to do here, in little Ireland, is punch above our weight in terms of the global climate movement,” says Kate Ruddock, the deputy director of an Irish environmental group called Friends of the Earth. Activism has helped push the country’s government to divest from fossil fuels, and to ban fracking on and off shore, shuttering two major import terminals that would have received fracked gas from Pennsylvania and Texas.
In 2019, Basaldú participated in a protest in Gothenburg, Sweden, a major port city where local activists were trying to stop a proposed LNG terminal expansion. Hundreds of people showed up and camped outside the facility. The activists physically blocked off the entrances, eventually getting the Swedish government to cancel the project.
Organizers in the Lone Star State know that if they’d tried the same tactics at home, they could have been jailed or fined: In 2019, the Texas Legislature criminalized protests near “critical infrastructure,” which includes oil and gas facilities.
But the activism abroad isn’t all protests, says Rebekah Hinojosa, another organizer with the Sierra Club in Brownsville.Environmentalists launched campaigns against the banks and companies that finance major projects, and have pressured foreign governments to divest their holdings in natural gas companies as well. “The strategy has been death by a thousand cuts,” Hinojosa says. Basaldú has also found that while European environmentalists are riled up about energy and emissions, many of them haven’t learned about how these projects decimate and disenfranchise Indigenous people in the United States in order to increase profits for American companies that ship natural resources to European cities. “For me, that’s obvious, but it blew the minds of European activists who had never thought of it this way,” he says.
Lately, Texas activists are starting to see the results of their work: Late last year, the French government reportedly pressured a company called Engie to back out of a $7 billion deal with Houston-based NextDecade to export natural gas from a Brownsville facility. Last week, Annova LNG also announced it would scrap a major development in the South Texas port, citing the volatility of the global LNG market.
“Our local communities and the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas have been fighting these destructive and extractive industries like Annova LNG for years now,” Basaldú says. “We will continue to defend sacred lands.”
Their success has been met with pushback. Wayne Christian, one of the three Railroad Commissioners, blamed the foreign interference in Texas’ oil and gas industry on “sensationalist, fake news media” and “environmental extremists.” Even though the Commission approved flaring regulations in February, Christian made made sure the industry knew he didn’t want to regulate them. “Jobs…are under attack, when we as an industry should be darn proud of what we have done in this country,” he said.
In March, during the Texas Oil and Gas Association’s Energy Day at the Capitol, Christian doubled down again, calling out companies that have bent to demands that they follow “environmental, social and corporate governance” guidelines designed to encourage responsible investments. Some investment firms, responding to pressure from the general public, have stepped away from investing in the the most environmentally harmful fossil fuel projects because of ESG standards. This year at the Legislature, Republican state Senator Brian Birdwell, of Granbury, introduced a bill that would ban the state from investing its pension funds with those firms. Though the bill has a major loophole that would likely allow most pensions to continue holding profitable investments, it’s a show of support for one of Texas’ most powerful industries.
But those who live downwind of these oil and gas facilities know that the Legislature, and the Railroad Commission, rarely take aggressive measures to protect their communities from the industry, Basaldú says. “We all know that reliance on fossil fuels is detrimental globally,” he says. “Pollution doesn’t respect made up borders, and climate effects don’t either.”