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Environmentalists challenge crude oil export project at Fifth Circuit

The environmental groups claim that the project will exacerbate carbon emissions, harm aquatic life and result in hundreds of oil spills.

(CN) — Environmentalist groups filed a petition for review with the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday, challenging the Department of Transportation's approval of a license for a deepwater port located off the coast of Texas.

The proposed port would be located 35 miles off the coast of Brazoria County, Texas, a familiar area for commercial shipping vessels. The project approved by the transportation department's Maritime Administration (MARAD) would serve as an export dock for crude oil. 

The Sea Port Oil Terminal (SPOT) Deepwater Port project was approved by MARAD in Nov. 2021. 

The groups challenging the project include the Center for Biological Diversity, The Texas Campaign for the Environment, Sierra Club and Turtle Island Restoration Network. In their petition for review, the groups argue that MARAD failed to adequately consider the project's potential risk of oil spills and its impact on aquatic life. 

Moreover, the environmental groups argue that with a greater capacity to export oil, the demand for production will also significantly increase, leading to more carbon emissions being released. 

“Considering the administration’s stated commitment to ‘tackle the climate crisis’, it is particularly troubling that MARAD’s review of SPOT’s environmental and community impacts entirely fails to account for the project’s significant contributions to climate change...,” said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Devorah Ancel in a press release.

It has been projected that the port will be able to export over 2 million barrels of oil a day. For context, the United States exported an average of 6 million barrels of oil per day in 2022. 

The entire project consists of two components: an on-shore storage facility and an off-shore platform. Crude oil is collected at the on-shore facility and is transported to the off-shore platform via two, 36-inch diameter pipelines. From there, the oil is loaded onto ships and sent back out to sea.  

In addition to the license approval from MARAD, the environmental groups have also petitioned for the court to review the environmental impact statement conducted by MARAD and the United States Coast Guard.

The plaintiffs have predicted the project will be the cause of “hundreds of oil spills” and increased traffic in the area that will further harm the Rice’s Whale, a critically endangered species of baleen whale native to the Gulf of Mexico.

Joanie Steinhaus, Gulf program director for Turtle Island Restoration Network, a marine wildlife advocacy group, argues that the project would not only impact wildlife but human life as well. Especially for residents who live near the on-shore facility.

“...SPOT would disproportionately impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color near the facility,” said Steinhaus. 

Sea Port Oil Terminal is a subsidiary of Enterprise Products Operating, LLC, an oil and gas services company based in Houston, Texas. Enterprise Products Operation did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

MARAD, whose parent agency is the Department of Transportation, manages all waterborne transportation in federal waters. Additionally, the agency is responsible for licensing all deepwater port projects in the United States. 

SPOT began the permitting process with MARAD in Jan. 2019. Construction of the terminal and on-shore storage site is set to begin in the second quarter of this year, cumulating in the first exports of oil being projected for late 2025. 

It is uncertain how long the Fifth Circuit will take to address the matter or if it will disrupt the construction of the deepwater port while it reviews the case.

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