Southeastern Texas Petrochemical Industry Needs 318 Billion Gallons of Water, but the US EPA Says Not So Fast
The US Environmental Protection Agency is moving to turn off the tap to Texas’ petrochemical operators that are demanding exorbitant water quantities where there are none.
Petrochemical operators are also facing pushback from local residents, activists, and environmental groups, who are concerned about health and ecological impacts to the area’s water basins and estuaries, resources that humans and other sensitive populations depend on, an ill-fitting location for such a thirsty industry.
This article questions the petrochemical and oil and gas industry’s dependence on cheap resources and even cheaper disposal sites, and illuminates the industry’s fragility when they don’t have their way.
It’s been nearly a year since we published our story map and short film “Channels of Life: The Gulf Coast Buildout in Texas,” and two years since we visited the region to see with our own eyes what petrochemical buildout run amok looks like.
Since that visit, Corpus Christi Bay’s petrochemical industry companies have been adamant that they need more water to operate and bring riches to the region. In a state like Texas where water use is contentious, the industry was not going to find sympathetic audiences upstream of Nueces and Corpus Christi Bays. The next best thing – in their opinion – was to propose nine desalination facilities that would take in nearly 317 billion gallons of water and discharge 213 billion gallons of brine per year (Table 1).
If we assume the United States Geological Survey’s estimates for per capita water consumption are relatively accurate (i.e., 80-100 gallons per person per day), the figures proposed by the petrochemical industry amount to 30 and 20 times the residential water usage of the city of Corpus Christi annually. However, the even scarier component of these proposals is the brine that they would discharge into a bay that is currently 37% less saline than seawater and has been designated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “an estuary of national significance” by way of the establishment of the Corpus Christi Bay National Estuary Program (CCBNEP).
Corpus Christi Bay receives roughly 283 billion gallons of water per year from the Nueces River Basin, which means the petrochemical industry’s water intake demands would amount to 112% of annual inflows into the bay, and the brine produced would equal 75% of that annual recharge. These volumes would undoubtedly permanently alter the hydrology and salinity of the bay, jeopardizing the status of countless fish and bird species, such as the already tenuous Whooping Crane and Pink Spoonbill who rely almost entirely on the estuaries in the surrounding area for successful breeding.
As Kevin Sims, Aransas Bay Birding Charters Operator – who’s been plying the water in and around the Aransas Wildlife Refuge since 1972 – told us as part of our “Channels of Life” project:
“We need the desalination plants, but the planned discharge points are going to cripple our ecology and the business that rely on it for tourism. They could’ve discharged offshore, but instead they are discharging into the bay, and if it gets too salty the crab populations will plummet, and everything around here depends on crabs and shrimp. If we have a constant influx of brine, it could really cripple us. I went to a fantastic meeting from Texas A&M, and their science told them that if red fish larvae migrated into the [Aransas Pass] shipping channel and hit a wall of salty water, they wouldn’t go further, and their population would crash. But despite these facts, they’ve chosen to discharge into the La Quinta Channel, and that is bad news! They were having regular meetings on all of these proposals prior to COVID, but once COVID hit, they went all remote, and less people knew when the meetings were, and the meeting details weren’t widely disseminated … So, the next thing we knew, everything was passed, and they’re gonna (sic) go ahead and do [all of] it. My perspective comes from a lifetime of fishing and observing the Whooping Crane, and watching them progress from 157 eighteen years ago, to 507 at the present time. Well, I feel this will threaten an endangered species that they’ve been trying to bring back from the brink of extinction since the 1940s. I can remember my dad showing me the cranes in the mid-70s, and there were only 52-55. All the projects you are mapping have the potential to decimate all the progress made, not to mention money spent on Whooping Crane recovery. From my perspective, it’s a Catch-22, ‘cause the big cities take the water out of the river, and they don’t have the inflows into the bays that they did in the past. We also don’t have the rains that we used to have. The desalination plants would relieve some of that pressure if they would just put that brine offshore. The other species of concern to my industry is the Pink Spoonbills, but the Whooping Crane is the main draw.”
Table 1. Proposed Intake, Freshwater Yield, and Brine Discharge Volumes for nine desalination plant proposals across the Corpus Christi and Nueces Bay region of southeastern Texas. Data from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
(a) Modeled from the relationship between Fresh Water Yield and either In Take (‡) or Brine Discharge (‡‡) for the other eight sites.
(b) Proposals in bold are the facilities covered under EPA letter while the remaining six proposals are on hold and appear to be what the Port of Corpus Christi CEO was referring to with respect to future projects.
(c) The Hillcrest Residents Association (HRA) is challenging the Inner Harbor proposal on refinery row (¶) while Ingleside On the Bay Coastal Watch Association (IOBCWA) is challenging the city and port proposals on La Quinta Channel (¶¶)
EPA hits the brakes
However, some good news arrived by way of the EPA’s “Notice of Termination – Permit Review Waiver for Desalination Facility Permits” on September 20th of this year.
The notice stated that under their Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) (Section IV.C.8), EPA would be terminating “its waiver of review of these draft permits…because of a possible violation of federal or state statutes, rules, and policies”. Much of the EPA’s concern centers around the role public participation plays in TCEQ’s permitting process, and the ways in which the Texas legislature managed to narrowly define who has standing – relative to the US EPA’s more broad definition of “standing.” Moreover, the EPA pointed out in its letter the likely “impacts of the proposed discharge to aquatic life, the water quality of the receiving waterbody Corpus Christi Bay, and the TCEQ’s overall permit development and issuance process.”
Concerned citizens like Errol Summerlin of Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment (CAPE) told me that:
“…because the letter specifically lists The Port’s permit on harbor island, the city of Corpus Christi was saying they are more interested in that facility because of where it located and the State Office of Administration (SOA) hearing process. The Port Aransas Conservancy (PAC) took a contested case to SOAH, and a pair of Administrative Law Judges said the permit should be denied. This went back to the TCEQ commissioners, and the commissioners decided that the EPA letter was just a ‘recommendation’ and that the port should just go back and revise the proposal to address the 6 recommendations. In essence the port got a second bite at the apple and when they did present their new application, [CAPE et al.] looked at it as an entirely new application, not a revision! It is interesting that when this process is ongoing the EPA decides they are gonna look at this. The city looked at it and said they are just talking about the port, not us. However, the letter indicates that they want to take a look at all of them, but the city now recognizes that the letter is referencing all the desalination proposals. The TCEQ is now required to send all the documents for all four proposals to US EPA Region 6.
The fact that the industry’s water demands are not certain puts a chilling effect on their citing of facilities in the region!
This is the first time since 1999 that the EPA has invoked this power of review. As a result of the Exxon cracker’s 20 Million Gallon Per Day (MGD) giveaway, the surface waters available for the entire region are maxed out, because the city manages the water for seven counties – and this all happened at the same time in 2017. Uncoincidentally, three weeks after Exxon received the letter of commitment from the city, they decided to come here. Essentially, they gave away the entire drought resistance cushion we had, and we never really had it to give away in the first place. They gave away 20 MGD to Exxon and then another five to Steel Dynamics, which meant that they had to immediately pivot to desalination to address our cushion and drought conditions in a responsible way – but it turns out to be irresponsible, because they gave it all away for these two industries, and now, they are choosing an irresponsible alternative to put these desal plants all along Corpus Christi Bay. These desal plants require one permit for withdrawals and an additional permit for brine discharge, and because city and the port have exhausted the cushion I just mentioned, they are having to seek water rights for the first time!
An additional worry I have is that Exxon, being the first of the operators to request these volumes of water, will be “Grandfathered” in, and in the event they need an extra 2-3 MGD, Corpus Christi will just give it to them. And in an area that is already water stressed that could be the difference between resilience and succumbing to the next drought.“
To be clear, it isn’t just amazing activists like Mr. Summerlin who are pointing to the uncertainty around water as a major sticking point for the industry considering the region. Petrochemical and related operators have been quite brazen in their threats when it comes to their water needs – with no better example of this than what the Port of Corpus Christi CEO Sean Strawbridge told the Ingleside City Council on August 24, 2021, (starting about 46:00), that industries are asking:
“What the heck is going on with your water down there? Without permits [for desalination], we have nothing to talk about. Our [The Port’s] singular focus right now is to procure those permits…The only way to do large scale, scalable desal is to have it close to the open water…We think Harbor Island is the best location. La Quinta is going to be well-suited for those hydrogen projects to provide that uninterruptible supply of water…We’re gonna do all the modeling, all the analysis that it takes…because this is the first of its kind anywhere in the state of this size…”
If these proposed desalination proposals and related large water consumption projects are challenged, or by some miracle denied, the viability of the nation’s entire petrochemical industry will come into question. We know from Consumptive Water Use permits —like those submitted by the proposed PTTGC cracker plant backers in Ohio —this is an industry predicated on access to cheap and high-quality water, and on the other end, even cheaper destinations for their solid and liquid waste.
I, for one, am encouraged by this development, and much of it is due to the likes of Mr. Summerlin and all the amazing folks and nonprofit organizations down in Texas who are fighting the petrochemical industry in all its forms and across all its needs.
The Take Away
We’ll keep an eye on these proposals and the role of the EPA in the coming weeks and months, especially given the recent news that over 20 environmental nonprofits in Texas have started a petition calling on the US EPA “to require that Texas correct the identified deficiencies in the Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (TPDES) program.” In their letter to the US EPA, the petitioners went on to request that if Texas fails to comply, the EPA should “withdraw Texas’ delegated authority to administer the [NPDES] permitting program under the Clean Water Act.”
This challenge to state oil & gas regulatory agency primacy is not unique to Texas, and seems to be a growing trend popping up all over the country, as the petrochemical and oil and gas industries arrogantly run over regulators and their handmaids in statehouses nationwide.
The threat of a state losing its primacy over oil and gas infrastructure permitting and monitoring appears to be something the industry is taking very seriously—as are we. We will continue to monitor this angle as it pertains to the fracking industry and related oil and gas activities and needs.
References & Where to Learn More
Data in Table 1 taken from the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality Desalination Summary, March 5, 2020.
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