Tammy King watches as a chemical tanker passes through the ship channel just off Port Aransas.
Port Aransas Conservancy core member Tammy King watches as a chemical tanker passes through the ship channel just off Port Aransas. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

For many who visit Port Aransas, a beach vacation begins with the ferry stop on Harbor Island, where boats carry cars across the ship channel to the barrier island town of around 4,000 people.

But soon, about 200 acres of Harbor Island may well become the site of a major oil export terminal, if a set of projects proposed by the Port of Corpus Christi becomes a reality. The Port and its business partners are hoping to supply some of the biggest crude-carrying ships in the world.

They plan to deepen and widen the channel to allow these ships to move in and out and are also seeking a permit for a desalination plant on the island that would turn salty ocean water into water suitable for industrial use.

Corpus Christi has been at the center of the shift in the American transformation from energy importer to energy exporter, driven largely by high-producing oil and gas plays in Texas, particularly the Permian Basin in West Texas.

Nearly five years ago, the first U.S. oil tanker bound for export in 40 years departed from the Port of Corpus Christi. Since then, export has ramped up to nearly 700,000 barrels of crude per day, Port officials said.

By 2021, Port officials are claiming an additional 3.2 million to 3.4 million barrels per year will be headed to Corpus Christi, bound for export. The Port estimates that its new Harbor Island export terminal would bring in an additional $2 billion to $4 billion in revenue during the next 50 years.

“It is a tremendous additional increment of crude coming to the area that is looking for a gateway to offshore destinations,” said Jeff Pollack, a community planner the Port hired last year to direct its new planning department.

Port of Corpus Christi community planner Jeff Pollack speaks at a Port Aransas City Council meeting.
Port of Corpus Christi community planner Jeff Pollack speaks at a Port Aransas City Council meeting. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

The Port has already received funding and permits for some of its projects, but key pieces still need to be finalized, including a 50-year lease on the property where the oil terminal would be built.

The idea isn’t welcome among many residents of Port Aransas, primarily a fishing and beach town. The terminal’s future location lies within Port Aransas city limits, near the intersection of the channels that move water into Redfish Bay and the Lighthouse Lakes, a highly productive habitats for fish, crabs, shrimp, and sea turtles.

At a February meeting after listening to hours of testimony from Pollack and Port Chair Charles Zahn, the Port Aransas City Council passed a resolution calling for additional study and public comment time on the Port of Corpus Christi’s plans for the area.

“I just can’t imagine Harbor Island being the best place for that,” City Council member Beth Owens said at the meeting. “I am definitely pro-oil and gas, do not get me wrong, but for all of this to be coming into our area … this is a community.”

At the meeting, Pollack made a series of mostly economic arguments for the Port’s plans for Harbor Island.

“All of the economic prosperity that we enjoy as a region is a function of the Port of Corpus Christi,” Pollack said. “We certainly have a fantastic tourist economy, we have all sorts of ancillary industry related to that … but the community as a whole is a function of having a port. Corpus Christi literally grew up around the Port.”

Opponents fear a catastrophic oil spill would mean the end of the prolific fishing and bird life that draws tourists to the island. Some also worry that digging into the dirt on Harbor Island will expose contaminated soil and groundwater left over from previous oil industry activity and allow it to make its way into the wetlands.

“We want 100 percent due diligence, compliance, research, and investigations on what is being looked at for zero impact on our beaches, on our fishing industry, and our ecology,” Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jeffrey Hentz said. “We’re a tourism economy, and we cannot have that impacted.”

Most of those who oppose the Port’s plans aren’t anti-oil and gas. They say they just want the export terminal offshore, at a permanent buoy, similar to the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port. Multinational commodities company Trafigura has even proposed such a project 15 miles offshore from Corpus Christi, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

That way, these oil tankers could load up outside of the barrier island, away from the spawning grounds for the marine life that bring tourists to Port Aransas.

Among the mangroves

For 25 years, Port Aransas resident Cameron Pratt and her husband, Rick, lived next to the Lydia Ann Lighthouse, the only man-made object on a spit of sand at the edge of a vast marsh.

These areas of shallow water, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds make up about 50 square miles of prime fishing grounds known as Redfish Bay and the Lighthouse Lakes. It’s a stark but beautiful environment where channels with fast-moving currents cut through walls of mangrove. The water is never more than knee-deep and often clear, allowing visitors to see down to the seagrass, mud, and oyster reefs on the bottom.

The Lydia Ann lighthouse rises above the mangrove marsh and pools that make up the Lighthouse Lakes.
The Lydia Ann Lighthouse rises above the mangrove marsh and pools that make up the Lighthouse Lakes. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Both from the Houston area, the Pratts became caretakers of this Civil War-era lighthouse, owned by H-E-B chairman Charles Butt. Cameron Pratt worked as a biologist at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, while Rick Pratt worked full time on the lighthouse, trying to hold back its tendency to crumble back into the sand.

“It was heaven,” Cameron Pratt said in a February interview. “We wanted to live on a beautiful, unspoiled part of the Texas coast and this was it – undeveloped.”

For multiple fish species popular with commercial fishermen and just-for-fun anglers, Redfish Bay and Lighthouse Lakes are critical habitats. Spotted sea trout, black drum, southern flounder, mullet, and redfish all get carried into the estuaries as eggs and larvae and spend their young lives there before heading to deeper water. Adult blue crabs also abound in the estuaries.

Most of the Texas coast has some evidence of chemical plant, manufacturing site, oil refinery, or other heavy industry. The most extreme example is Galveston Bay, which is lined with refineries, chemical plants, storage tanks, pipelines, and other industrial activity.

Redfish Bay and the Lighthouse Lakes have never seen much heavy industry. Back when the Pratts were teaching classes at the Armand Bayou Nature Center in Galveston, they would take their students around to different parts of the Galveston Bay complex to see all the different ecosystems that make up the coast.

Their last stop would always be Redfish Bay, “so [students] could see what it was supposed to look like,” she said.

Visitors to the Lighthouse Lakes will see an abundance of fish not just below the water, but above the surface. Across the shallow expanse, the sound of fish jumping and plopping is the only sound apart from wind and distant boat motors. Birds like herons, sandpipers, pelicans, and egrets step their way through the shallow water, scooping up fish. Dolphins breach in the deeper Aransas Channel next to the bay.

A white ibis treads through wetlands near Aransas Channel.
A white ibis treads through wetlands near Aransas Channel. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Pratt said all the bay needs to stay healthy and keep producing prodigious amounts of fish is to be left alone.

“You don’t have the pollution coming in,” Pratt said. “You don’t have a bunch of oil development in this area, so the marshes and bays aren’t cut up with a bunch of channels like up in Louisiana. It’s just by the grace of God been able to stay pristine.”

That’s all potentially at risk if one of those carriers spills or leaks, say members of the Port Aransas Conservancy.

‘Everything needs clean water’

At the City Council meeting in February, Port Aransas Council member Joan Holt questioned Pollack about the effect on the local fisheries.

Holt, a retired marine scientist, is well-known in the community for her work studying redfish, a sport fish species. While at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, Holt and a colleague were the first scientists to figure out how to spawn and raise redfish in captivity. In 2016, Holt won a lifetime achievement award from the YWCA for her work as a pioneering woman in her field.

“The habitats here are so important for our economy,” Holt told Pollack. “We’re completely a nature-tourism-based economy. Fishing, birdwatching, beaching. Everything needs clean water, and we need lots of healthy fish to keep everything going fine.”

The Port is serious about avoiding and containing spill, Pollack told the crowd. He said the Port intends to have the terminal manned 24/7 with a spill response crew. He suggested that the crew would be able would place booms around the oil before it could spread.

By contrast, Pollack said an oil spill in an “off-shore environment with winds and high seas” would have much more “dispersal than any equivalent in-shore where you have response literally right there.”

Pollack also pointed out that building the terminal in-shore means it would be subject to more stringent air quality regulations than if it was out in the Gulf.

Redfish Bay and Lighthouse Lakes are a maze of marshes that make up a productive fish and wildlife habitat.
Redfish Bay and Lighthouse Lakes are a maze of marshes that make up a productive fish and wildlife habitat. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Cathy Fulton, a core member of the conservancy who lives in Port Aransas, said they have good reason to be concerned about an oil spill at that site.

“That is a real strong current there,” she said. “Before you could contain it, it’s going to be moving, and that’s the problem.”

Pollack touted the Port’s stringent environmental certifications and said the goal is to “to protect the quality of life that we who work here, live here, play here enjoy as well.”

He added that “there is no question, from an economic standpoint, that expanding the scope of operations of the Port in a responsible way has economic return for everyone in this community.”

Echoes of ‘Deeport’

For those who have lived in the area for decades, the Port’s recent plans echo those it called for in the 1970s, under an umbrella of projects known as “Deeport.” Back then, the Port wanted to deepen the channel to 80 feet and add the infrastructure needed to create two berths on Harbor Island for supertankers meant for importing oil, not exporting.

The fight over Deeport led to the founding of Port Aransas’ hometown newspaper, The South Jetty, as well as to greater protection and State scrutiny regarding the fish habitat in nearby Redfish Bay and the Lighthouse Lakes. Lighthouse Lakes became the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s first official paddling trail in the 1990s.

But things have changed since the 1970s. With production booming in the Permian Basin in West Texas, the U.S. has recently become a net exporter instead of an importer.

What many of those opposed to the project question is why Harbor Island has to be the export hub. Aside from the Trifigura offshore terminal, proposals include another export terminal in Freeport, about 130 miles north of Port Aransas.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice University environmental law professor and authority on coastal issues, addressed Texas ports’ competitive nature in a chapter in his Book of Texas Bays about Redfish Bay and Lighthouse Lakes.

“Texas ports have a history of fighting each other,” Blackburn wrote. “Competition, not cooperation, has been the ethic of Texas port development. What one port has, the others want, and matters escalate.”

According to Blackburn’s research, a wave of negative public opinion and formal opposition from agencies like the National Marine Fisheries Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife is what killed the Deeport proposal.

“This time, it’s going to take Texans to try to stop them,” Port Aransas Conservancy core member Tammy King said in a phone interview. 

King and her husband, James, can stand on their rooftop balcony at the north edge of Port Aransas and watch the ships moving in and out of the bay. An app on Tammy King’s phone tells her their names and sizes and what type of cargo they carry.

Like many of their neighbors, the Kings are still putting their property back as it was before Hurricane Harvey hammered the area in August 2017. In February, contractors were working on rebuilding their boathouse. 

King, the great-great-great-grandson of Capt. Richard King, who founded the massive King Ranch, is a former director for The Nature Conservancy and was instrumental in creating the Davis Mountains Preserve in West Texas. He and Tammy now run a conservation real estate company.

“Every good thing in Texas that’s been saved was a radical idea and a big fight,” Tammy King said.

Like others in the Port Aransas Conservancy, King has family ties to past leaders of the Port of Corpus Christi. His great-grandfather helped start the Port and served on its commission for 42 years. At a Tuesday Port meeting, King delivered a blistering address during public comment, urging Port commissioners to “treat their neighbors as their neighbors.”

Dredging the channel

The first part of the Port’s proposal – dredging material from the bed of the channel to widen and deepen it – is already well on its way.

In 2017, the Port entered an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen and widen the channel. Since then, the project’s cost has ballooned from an estimated $327 million to close to $482.4 million, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

The federal government already has funded these plans with $95 million, and the Trump administration is proposing another $53 million in its 2020 budget.

The Port has been steadily dredging the channel deeper for nearly a century. In 1927, its depth was approximately 29 feet. By 1934, the channel had been deepened to 36 feet, then, by 1989, its current depth of 47 feet.

In January, the Port awarded a $93 million contract to an Illinois dredging company to complete the initial part of the project. In 2019, the federal budget includes another $13 million in funding, with $59 million set to come from the Corps and another $35 million from the Port. This phase of dredging would have the channel deepened from 47 feet to 54 feet.

The channel would need to be even deeper — 75 feet — to accommodate some of the largest oil tankers in the world. Another $151 million in federal funding would be required in 2020 and 2021, according to Port officials.

Very Large Crude Carriers are the second-largest class of oil tankers. They’re nearly 1,100 feet long and 180 feet wide at their widest point. At that size, they’re comparable to Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the second-largest type in the U.S. Navy.

Currently, VLCCs are able to access the Port of Corpus Christi, but they can’t fill up completely with the channel near Port Aransas only at 47 feet, Pollack said.

Instead, they fill up partially in Corpus Christi Bay, then travel outside the barrier island before anchoring offshore in the Gulf. Smaller tankers then deliver enough oil to completely fill the vessel.

“We have had half a dozen or so in the ship channel with absolutely no disruption over the last six weeks,” Pollack said at the council meeting. “They’ve been absolutely unremarkable events.”

The operation the Port is planning would allow up to three of these VLCCs at a time to fully load up on oil at Harbor Island. Everything would run 24/7, with the ability to load a maximum of 80,000 barrels, or 3.4 million gallons, of oil per hour.

Last October, the Port announced an agreement with Washington, D.C., investment firm The Carlyle Group to develop the terminal. The Port’s commission was set to vote on a 50-year lease with The Carlyle Group on Tuesday, but a State appeals court judge blocked the vote because of a legal dispute by a former Port Commissioner Kenneth Berry.

The Port is still going ahead with its plans for a desalination plant on Harbor Island to supply fresh water for industrial use. That would involve pulling 50 million gallons per day of seawater from the channel off Harbor Island and treating it via reverse osmosis. The waste product – highly salty brine – would then be discharged back into the network of channels using diffusers.

The Port has obtained a State permit for the discharge, but its intake permit for Harbor Island is still “under development,” Pollack said.

Pollution left from previous owner

After an oil pipeline leak at her family ranch led to a drawn-out legal battle, Cathy Fulton became somewhat of an expert in researching the oil and gas industry and its dealings with regulators.

Port Aransas Conservancy member Cathy Fulton speaks with Port of Corpus Christi community planner Jeff Pollack at a February City Council meeting.
Port Aransas Conservancy member Cathy Fulton speaks with Port of Corpus Christi community planner Jeff Pollack at a February City Council meeting. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

The daughter of Corpus Christi construction magnate Joe Fulton, Cathy Fulton lives in Port Aransas and runs two craft and home goods stores. After Harvey, it took her months to get the stores up and running again.

Recently, she’s had more time to study the history of past pollution on Harbor Island. For most of the 20th century, the island did have oil storage tanks, but these were meant for import, not export.

Since 1996, the Port has owned the part of Harbor Island it wants to convert into an oil terminal. Before that, the land was owned by ExxonMobil and Petrofina, a formerly Belgian company that in 1999 merged with French energy giant Total.

Nowadays, it’s hard to tell the land’s history just by looking at it. Marsh grasses wave in the wind behind a tall chain-link fence.

But Fulton dug up evidence of petroleum-related chemicals lurking just below the surface in shallow oil and groundwater.

Using aerial photos, Fulton counted around 35 oil storage tanks on Harbor Island for about 50 years, before cleanup started in the 1990s.

As part of her research, she found restrictive covenants placed on the land by the Texas Railroad Commission that state that high levels of petroleum hydrocarbons remain in the soil and groundwater on multiple parcels of Harbor Island. This is even after State-mandated cleanup work that required Exxon and Fina to remove hundreds of thousands of cubic yards at the site.

The covenants state that the property can be used only for “commercial/industrial use.” No housing, hospitals, schools, or even parks can be allowed there because of the pollution.

Pollack acknowledged this history at the meeting, saying crude oil tanks at Harbor Island date back to 1933.

“All of the substantive development in Port Aransas has taken place from the ’30s to the early 2000s,” Pollack said. “To say that repeating that land use, possibly in a diminutive scale … and with contemporary technology, will kill quality of life in Port Aransas, kill the experience of Port Aransas? I leave it to you to decide whether that is hyperbole or not.”

Fulton’s big question is what happens to all that contamination on Harbor Island once construction starts?

Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan.
Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

At the City Council meeting, Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan told Pollack that he recalls the oil tanks on Harbor Island when it was in the hands of Exxon and Fina.

“They did a, excuse my expression, a piss-poor job of pollution over there,” Bujan said. “And now that land is polluted and probably can never be cleaned up. What kind of job are you guys going to do?”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.