BY Jesus Sanchez | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
As of last Wednesday, the Office of the President had received more than 200 calls against the agreement between UTRGV and the developer of a proposed liquefied natural gas project at the Port of Brownsville.
Only nine of the 219 calls received were in support of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the university and NextDecade LLC, the developer.
Patrick Gonzales, assistant vice president of University Marketing and Communications, told The Rider that 186 of the calls were a result of a protest launched by an LNG opposition group and 24 calls were from a protest started by a UTRGV student group.
Gonzales said both protest groups provided UTRGV President Guy Bailey’s office number and a phone script for callers.
“We understand that there were two sides to this,” he said. “The students that [are part] of that certain student group is opposed to LNG and I hope you understand that there are those who are for it as well. We can’t get involved in either of those sides. We’re simply focused on providing the best educational opportunities for our students.”
UTRGV Faculty Senate President Bobbette Morgan told The Rider that about half the senate members were in favor of the agreement and half were against.
“There were a lot of mixed feelings about the issue,” Morgan said in a telephone interview Friday. “We heard from many of the senators. The final decision, however, was that we felt that as faculty we needed to be more educated about the issue. What we ended up doing is establishing a small committee to research both sides of the issue and they’ll come back and share that at our October meeting.”
Morgan said she presented the issue to the senate. The appointed committee will present its report during the senate’s Oct. 7 meeting at the UTRGV Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, she said.
“We support, of course, our president in signing MOUs with companies, you know, to establish partnerships with the university; we support that,” she said. “It was just the timing of this particular one and that there was not a lot of faculty input into this.”
The Rider received a copy of the MOU from Gonzales last Wednesday. It states that the university and NextDecade “wish to cooperate in promoting energy, engineering and technology related education, and research and job training opportunities for UTRGV students in the Rio Grande Valley region thereby promoting broader social and economic development.”
Under the agreement, the university and NextDecade may investigate cooperation initiatives to achieve the goals. The initiatives include:
–address critical needs in the energy industry for engineering and technology and other graduates specializing in energy
–promote opportunities for applied research, education, training and installations at the Port of Brownsville, UTRGV and the ND projects
–encourage development of internship programs within the energy, engineering and technology industries
–foster the recruitment, retention and development of students in science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM”) subjects.
The MOU states it “does not create a partnership, joint venture, or relationship of trust or agency between the parties” and will be effective for three years, with an option to extend the term upon written agreement by both parties.
A copy of the MOU is available here.
The Rider asked Gonzales why the news media was not invited to the signing of the MOU.
“It was just an intimate setting,” he replied. “It was very early in the morning, but we knew we were going to send out a press release. There are several, you know, other MOU signings that [don’t] require media invitation.”
The idea of the agreement was “spearheaded” by Alexander Domijan, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Gonzales said.
“I believe he had conversations with NextDecade and as those discussions progressed, the possibility of partnering with them and all the benefits for our students began to arrive,” he said. “I guess that’s where the idea started.”
The Rider tried to contact Domijan last Tuesday. Domijan requested the newspaper work with Gonzales for further information.
Gonzales told The Rider via email that conversations with NextDecade began in late spring, when the developer was conducting talks with various educational institutions across the Rio Grande Valley.
NextDecade announced on Sept. 7 that the U.S. Energy Department authorized the export of liquefied natural gas from its proposed Rio Grande LNG facility to Free Trade Agreement countries.
“We have to have license from the [U.S.] Department of Energy to export natural gas overseas,” James Markham-Hill, NextDecade, LLC manager of Communications, told The Rider in a phone interview last Thursday. “Last year, we submitted an application with the DOE for an export license to export to FTA countries and then as well to non-FTA countries.”
Markham-Hill said the company is expecting the Energy Department to make its decision on the non-FTA permit in mid-2017, once the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process has been completed.
Bridget Bartol, deputy press secretary of the Energy Department’s Office of Public Affairs, told The Rider via email that countries with FTAs are Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jordan, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Oman, Panama, Peru, Republic of Korea and Singapore.
“I don’t think a lot of people really recognize how big of an economic impact our project will have to the Rio Grande Valley,” Markham-Hill said. “At full build is a potentially $15-to-$20 billion project and that makes it not one of the largest investments but the largest proposed private investment anywhere in the state of Texas.”
The Rider tried to contact SAVE RGV from LNG, a group that opposes the project, and the UTRGV Environmental Awareness Club, which launched a protest Sept. 8 on the Edinburg campus, but as of press time, neither group had responded.