A new proposal to turn the U.S.-Mexico border into an industrial zone would be a boon to the natural gas industryA proposed plan to turn the U.S.-Mexico border into an industrial park has alarmed residents and climate experts. Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

A group of academics and industry sponsors have proposed turning the U.S./Mexico border into an “energy park,” a project they say will boost the energy industry, provide border security and bring water to a parched region. But it will also, as many climate experts and border resident warn, disrupt the environment, local culture and exacerbate climate change by building more infrastructure to benefit the natural gas industry. 

The proposal, written by a group of 28 engineers and scientists, said the industrial zone would span the entire 1,954-mile border and would include natural gas pipelines, solar panels, wind turbines and desalination facilities. The plan, called the  Future Energy, Water, Industry and Education Park, touts renewable energy as a cornerstone of its plan, it has a significant fossil fuel component and has the backing of several industry partners, including Bechtel, General Electric, Sempra Energy and Maeva Investments. The proposed industrial zone would be led by a consortium of industries, universities and laboratories in the U.S., Mexico and Latin America, according to its authors. 

The group says the natural gas infrastructure is needed to supplement energy produced by wind and solar. Natural gas, once considered the “bridge” fuel necessary to transition to a carbon-free energy system, is a major contributor to climate change because it releases large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

One researcher who just published a study on the surge in methane emissions and its devastating impact on the climate said the false narrative that natural gas is needed to bridge to renewable energy comes straight from the natural gas industry. “There is absolutely no room for any increase in natural gas,” said Dr. Robert W. Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University whose study on methane emissions was published last week. “If we’re going to meet our targets we have to dramatically start reducing our use of natural gas right now.”

The plan also faces opposition from local residents who say, like President Trump’s proposed border wall, the energy park would be an environmental catastrophe as well as disrupt communities and local culture.

“Their plan necessitates habitat destruction and an increase in infrastructure and the idea that ‘we’ll just cover it in solar panels’ is still destroying the desert,” said Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, which has led opposition to the border wall as well. 

The authors also say the facilities would be patroled by private security employed by the energy companies, which would also help stem illegal immigration.

The plan’s academic partners include Caltech, Chalmers University of Technology, Cornell University, Imperial College London, Portland State University, Purdue University, Rice, University of Illinois, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, Stanford University, State University of New York at Buffalo, University of Maryland, University of Notre Dame, Recinto University, and the University of Washington. 

The proposal’s authors say they have government partners as well, but they have not yet been announced.

Better Than a Wall?

Formally rolled out in a white paper released earlier this year, the proposed 62-mile wide industrial corridor would, it’s authors say, “build a secure, large-scale economic development zone at strategic locations along the U.S.-Mexico border” and would bring energy and water to drought-prone regions on both sides of the border.

“Water and energy availability along the border will create new market demand and prosperity, thereby reducing illegal immigration,” wrote the authors.

According to the plan, wind-powered desalination plants would be constructed at each end of the border—in Texas near the Gulf of Mexico and in California near the Pacific Ocean—and the  fresh water would be distributed through pipelines. The authors say more than half of the water used in the U.S. is currently used for cooling fossil fuel and nuclear-fired power plants. By relying on wind and solar power, billions of gallons of water could be saved, they say.  

The plan calls for the creation of at least three “energy security institute” campuses to be developed along the border, where people from both nations can go to learn the skills needed to work in the wind energy, solar energy and natural gas industries. 

Jay P. Gore, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue, said private funding will be needed in order to implement the plan.

“A project of this magnitude must be a private-public venture driven by free-market forces,” Gore said.

Luciano Castillo, a professor of renewable energy and power systems at Purdue University and lead author of the white paper, said the goal is to build an alliance between government, universities and on both sides of the border. The authors say they have met with Congressional leaders, but have not identified which ones, or whether they support the project. 

“By bringing energy, which exists in large amounts in terms of solar and wind and also natural gas, we could actually achieve one major objective, which is water security for the region,” Castillo said, adding that the project would create the largest industrial and technological park in the world. 

In addition to saving water, the utility plants, pipelines and energy production facilities will have their own security, which will help secure the border, the authors said.

“In addition to physical security features, such as multiple levels of fencing, these pipelines and facilities would also have electronic sensors and drone surveillance,” Castillo said.

As climate change worsens, migration will only increase, he said.

“Even within the same nation, people will be migrating,” Castillo said. “By building a consortium of scientists and industries with both countries, we are actually attacking a problem of the future while also dealing with the challenge, which is that people don’t have opportunities in parts of Latin America and around the world.”

“Surveys to assess the most optimal use of the land on both sides of the border for agriculture, cattle, bioenergy, and wind and solar energy generation are essential,” said Gore, one of the paper’s co-authors. Gore said the proposed industrial zone could be the “greatest American innovation in the western hemisphere since the Panama Canal.”

Residents & Climate Experts Disagree 

Some residents along the stretch of the border between McAllen and Brownsville, which is one of the most biologically diverse in North America, say Trump’s border wall or an industrial energy zone will destroy their culture and environment.

“Just because it’s hot and dry in the Rio Grande Valley doesn’t mean we need to change it to be a different ecosystem—it means we need to protect the environment and the species that depend on it,” Trevino-Wright said, adding that any type of construction, whether it be a wall or a large-scale industrial park, will lead to the loss of habitat for butterflies, birds and other wildlife.

Trevino-Wright and others along the border say the immigration crisis has been manufactured by the Trump administration as a means to push through pipelines to transport fracked gas from the Permian Basin to proposed liquified natural gas (LNG) facilities near Brownsville. 

A recent report by several environmental groups found the three proposed terminals would lead to an increase in fracking in the Eagle Ford and Permian shale basins and do the same damage to the climate as approximately 61 coal plants. 

Last year, the Permian Basin accounted for about 11 percent of the U.S. natural gas supply and analysts say once more pipelines and infrastructure are in place, that percentage will likely increase. Exxon and Chevron have both invested heavily in the region.

“I see it really as the dirty little secret, but that is the goal, that’s part of the reason Trump is determined to get this wall built in his tenure, or at least get … all the contracts awarded, in this four years,” said Trevino-Wright, referring to gas pipeline proposed to run the length of the border.

“The idea that we need natural gas in order to support wind and solar build out is a myth and we’re in great danger of locking in gas at the expense of naturally clean energy,” said Stockman, author of “Burning the ‘Gas Bridge’ Myth: Why Gas is Not Clean, Cheap, or Necessary,” which was released in May. 

Howarth said the industry spawned the idea of natural gas as a clean bridge fuel.

“It was a half-truth,” Howarth said because while natural gas’s carbon dioxide emissions are far less than coal, “the methane emissions are far worse, so when you look at both it’s no better, perhaps worse than coal, certainly no better as a bridge fuel.” 

Howarth said with that myth debunked by research, the fossil fuel industry embarked on a new messaging campaign: that natural gas is needed until we can fully rely on wind and solar energy.

“The natural gas industry started switching their advertising about three 3 or four 4 years ago, first in Europe and then more recently in the U.S., sort of semi-embracing the idea that we have solar and wind coming on, but that we need natural gas to even that out for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. That’s absolute nonsense,” Howarth said, adding that there are many places in the world where countries or regions have run electric grids that are mostly fossil free for days or weeks at a time. 

“You don’t need natural gas for that bridging, it’s just not true,” he said. 

Lorna Stockman, a senior research analyst with Oil Change International, said the proposal raises a lot of questions, including why proponents would include a natural gas pipeline.

“It’s really unclear what the demand actually is, what would that pipeline actually serve,” he said. 

The proposal indicates the gas could be shipped to Mexican markets, but several existing pipelines—including Energy Transfer’s Trans Pecos pipeline—are already available to serve those very markets.

Three LNG export terminals have been proposed in the Rio Grande Valley, and thus far plans suggest that the facilities—Annova LNG, Rio Grande LNG and Texas LNG—will receive gas via existing pipelines or pipelines that are already further along in the permitting process. 

Residents Question the Benefits 

Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo-Comecrudo tribe, which is indigenous to SouthTexas and Northern Mexico, said any proposed barrier could disturb sacred tribal artifacts, and endanger the Eli Jackson Cemetery, a state-designated historic site where some of his ancestors are buried.

The cemetery is situated in San Juan, Texas, just north of the border, and about 75 yards south of a flood levee that runs roughly parallel to the Rio Grande. Mancias and other residents initially believed the cemetery was slated for demolition, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a statement in June indicating the cemetery could be protected.

“It has never been CBP’s intent to disturb or relocate cemeteries that may lie within planned barrier alignment,” the CBP statement said.

Current plans call for whatever barrier is constructed to be erected on the levee, with a 150-yard buffer zone on either side. That means the cemetery—and a nearby community—would be behind the wall, in a buffer zone slated to be clear cut and likely off-limits to residents.  

“Once they build the buffer zone—which will really be a no-man’s land—they can do anything they want back there,” Mancias said. “We are the original people of this land, but they’ve long wanted us out, wanted to take more of our land, wanted to turn this area into an industrial area.”

Howarth said the companies proposing those facilities are likely keeping a close eye on the proposed plan as the only way for them to make money is to raise the demand for natural gas.

“The price of natural gas is extraordinarily low in the U.S. and it has been for the past couple of years,” Howarth said. “The industry’s hope is to get it out of our country because it’s difficult to increase demand here with renewables coming on as such cost-effective competitors—so they’re betting a lot on LNG.”

Regardless of the proposed pipeline’s purpose experts say any new project involving natural gas will only exacerbate climate change. 

“When you build a pipeline it’s a multi-billion dollar project and for investors to get their money back, it’s got to operate for decades to come,” Stockman said. “I’d be concerned about locking in any new natural gas infrastructure whether it’s in partnership with solar and wind development or not. We’re at this point in the climate crisis now, where additional fossil fuel infrastructure of any sort is a major concern and risks blowing the carbon budget.”

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