The Biden administration has approved plans to build the nation’s largest oil export terminal off the Gulf Coast of Texas, which will add 2 million barrels per day to US oil export capacity.
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The approval from the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration was filed in federal register on Monday without any public announcement, the day after the UN’s annual climate conference ended in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt.
Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit, discovered the filing and announced the approval of the Sea Port Oil Terminal on Tuesday.
“President Biden cannot lead on fighting climate change, protecting public health or advocating for environmental justice while allowing fossil fuel companies to lock in decades of fossil fuel extraction,” the group’s senior policy attorney, Kelsey Crane, said in a statement.
In its 94 page decisionwrote the Maritime Administration, “The construction and operation of the port is in the national interest because the project will benefit employment, economic growth, and the resiliency and security of U.S. energy infrastructure. The port will provide a reliable source of crude oil for U.S. allies in the event of market disruptions.”
The administration’s move marked a major step forward for the export sector, which has grown rapidly since the US began to allow sales of crude oil abroad in 2015, the same year the United States helped broker the Paris climate accord that called for dramatic reductions in global fossil fuel emissions.
The offshore oil export terminal, the first to be approved of four proposed along Texas’ Gulf Coast, would allow continued growth in US shale oil production and in global consumption, giving the White House a significant setback. Goal for drastic cuts in CO2 emissions by 2030.
“President Biden has renewed America’s leadership in the fight against climate change,” the White House said ahead of the UN climate conference in Egypt this month. “The president is delivering on his promises on day one and positioning the United States to meet our ambitious climate goals.”
In July, the Danish Maritime Authority’s 890 page impact statement said oil processed at the Sea Port Oil Terminal will create greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 233 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (about 4% of total US emissions in 2020).
The approval of the Sea Port Oil Terminal, off the coast of Freeport, about 50 miles south of Galveston, gave the company’s developers – Enterprise and Endbridge – a clear lead in the race to build the first new offshore export terminal in the Gulf. It was the agency’s first approval and followed a three-year review process.
According to James Coleman, who teaches energy law at Southern Methodist University in Texas, the export terminal approval represents the “hands-off” approach the Biden administration has adopted toward oil infrastructure projects since he won the White House on promises to block pipeline expansions.
“They keep asking the oil industry to expand its production and build more refineries. And yet they say we have to phase out fossil fuels,” Coleman said. “What they’ve said seems contradictory.”
The Environmental Protection Agency issued its approval for the project last month — also without a public announcement — prompting Gulf Coast activists to organize a protest in Washington, DC, that resulted in four arrests last week.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Melanie Oldham, founder of Citizens for Clean Air and Clean Water in Brazoria County, where the project is proposed. “[Transportation] Secretary Pete Buttigieg and President Biden have chosen not to be climate change.”
The EPA has not responded to repeated requests for comment. While its October 7 endorsement of the new terminal outlined concerns over climate change and environmental justice, it did not explain why the agency chose to approve the project.
“Last week they were in Egypt telling the world now is the time for climate action. This week they are locking us into a climate-destroying monstrosity for at least a generation,” said Jeffrey Jacoby, deputy director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
According to the Danish Maritime Authority, the project will expand a Houston area terminal operated by Enterprise and connects it to a new 140-acre onshore facility near Freeport with 4.8 million barrels of storage capacity. From there, two 36-inch underwater pipelines will run to the new deepwater port, 30 miles offshore, where two 24-inch floating crude oil hoses will load it onto the world’s largest class of crude oil tankers.
At least 14 giant pumps with a combined output of 86,000 horsepower are needed to move the oil from Houston to Freeport and then out to the offshore terminal.
The project will create 62 permanent jobs plus up to 1,400 temporary construction jobs, according to the Danish Maritime Authority.
The project aims to improve the efficiency of oil exports from the Texas coast, where smaller tankers currently ferry oil from coastal depots to larger ships waiting in deeper water, miles offshore.
It will process more oil than the largest US export terminal currently operating, Moda Ingleside Crude Export Terminalowned by Texas-based Enbridge, which moves up to 1.6 million barrels per day at the Port of Corpus Christi, the nation’s largest port for oil exports.
“Compared to facilities and processes used today, this project will create a safer, more efficient mechanism for exporting oil and will play a key role in facilitating U.S. energy security,” a Maritime Administration spokesman said in a statement.
The administration’s decision laid out a series of final steps for the Sea Port Oil Terminal to receive a license and begin construction.
Plans to develop the offshore oil sector date to the lifting of the oil export ban in December 2015, said Jordan Blum, editorial director at Hart Energy in Houston. But the effort lost momentum in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic caused global oil demand to fall.
Now that demand has roared back and prices are sky high, the development of the export sector pushes forward. The Danish Maritime Authority’s approval gives the Sea Port Oil Terminal a clear lead among similar projects.
“There was essentially this big race to build these,” Blum said. “Not all of these projects will be built, so it’s really important to be a first mover.”
The Sea Port Oil Terminal hopes to start operations by the end of 2025. When it does, Blum said, it will initially draw business from less efficient onshore terminals in Houston and Corpus Christi. Over time, it will enable growth in oil production from Texas’ shale oil fields and beyond.
“It would allow increased production to continue. It would encourage more production, but it wouldn’t be like a light switch,” Blum said.
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