72-Year-Old Fisher Hunger Strikes to Press Biden to Revive Crude Oil Export Ban

Seventy-two-year-old, fourth-generation retired shrimper Diane Wilson has been without food for 16 days. Her 1995 red Chevy, nicknamed “Rosie,” has become a mobile campsite, and each morning she posts up on a causeway at the waterfront of Texas’ Lavaca Bay, expending just enough energy to switch out a sign displaying the number of days she’s been on hunger strike and drape a banner off the side of the truck blaring the message: “STOP THE DREDGING. STOP OIL EXPORT.”

She hopes her hunger strike will draw enough attention to pressure the Biden administration stop Houston-based oil and gas firm Max Midstream’s plans to invest $360 million to deepen and widen the Matagorda Ship Channel by 2023. The narrow channel provides shipping access to Lavaca Bay’s main port at Point Comfort — a key gateway for the state’s oil and gas exports to reach global markets.

Diane Wilson at her mobile campsite at the causeway of Texas' Lavaca Bay at Point Comfort on April 27, 2021.
Diane Wilson at her mobile campsite at the causeway of Texas’ Lavaca Bay at Point Comfort on April 27, 2021.

The channel’s expansion would allow larger shipping vessels egress, and enable Max Midstream to massively build out its Seahawk export terminal with additional infrastructure including new storage and loading facilities, as well as link up with several pipeline systems that would quadruple its capacity to move fracked gas from the Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin overseas. Max Midstream says it plans to invest up to $1 billion overall on its terminal buildout, pipeline projects and channel expansion plans throughout the process.

In fact, the firm has already announced a deal with Phillips 66 to connect with its 900,000-barrel-per-day Gray Oak Pipeline and has entered into a public-private partnership with the Calhoun Port Authority (which operates the Point Comfort port) to accelerate the channel expansion project. Max Midstream signed a lease agreement in May 2020 to use about five acres on Point Comfort’s northern peninsula for its new export hub. Dredging is expected to begin in 2022, and the company already plans to ship crude bound for northwestern Europe from its existing terminal in early May.

Point Comfort sits on the east side of Lavaca Bay, about 92 miles north of the Port of Corpus Christi, the nation’s leading oil export terminal, and 145 miles south of the massive Houston Ship Channel. The new export hub would be sandwiched in between Houston and Corpus Christi, giving companies a third option for exporting fracked gas — despite a historic, pandemic-induced oil and gas glut.

But before any of that that can happen, the Matagorda Ship Channel must be dredged 47 feet deep and widened to 300 feet, which retired shrimper and activist Wilson fears will retoxify the waters, as the dredging would unearth mercury contamination from the bay system’s Alcoa Superfund site, devastating fisheries that the local community is working to restore and revitalize. The Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund site is one of the nation’s largest, encompassing 3,500 acres that includes the now-shuttered Alcoa aluminum smelter and a soaring formation of toxic dredging materials known as “Dredge Island.”

With financial backing from the London-based Cola Group, Max Midstream says it’s taking advantage of the space made available on the port’s northern peninsula after Alcoa permanently closed its refinery at the end of 2019.

“It’s got nothing to do with the well-being of this country; it’s sending crude fossil fuel over to other countries,” Wilson tells Truthout. She worries about the hundreds of oysteries and seagrasses that the company and Port Authority will smother during the dredging process, and how an increase in salinity will disrupt the sensitive, already damaged bay system.

“I’m 72, so I’m pretty old for a hunger strike.… But I’m very determined, and I’m not getting off until we get it,” Wilson says, referring to a total halt to the expansion plans. “I love this bay, and it’s like, for me, it’s my home, and they will not get it. They won’t get it.”

Congress’s passage in December 2020 of the Water Resources and Development Act paved the way for the expansions plans to become reality. The legislation specifically authorizes the Matagorda Ship Channel dredging project, language that was pursued by both Max Midstream and the Calhoun Port Authority.

The Army Corps of Engineers expedited its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Matagorda Ship Channel Improvement Project, greenlighting the project in November 2019, despite the Impact Statement’s acknowledgement that sediments contaminated with mercury will be impacted by dredging. Those impacts, however, remain unstudied.

“The Corps has sort of admitted in public meetings that they’re rushing the project,” says Ethan Buckner, who is interim infrastructure and petrochemicals campaign manager at the environmental nonprofit Earthworks. “They’re barreling forward on what seems to be somewhat of an arbitrary timeline for the project.”

It gets worse: For decades, petrochemical manufacturer Formosa Plastics illegally dumped billions of plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay and adjacent waterways from its plant at Point Comfort. The pellets, known as “nurdles,” often poison fish and other wildlife that ingest them.

In October 2019, Formosa agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit brought in 2017 by Wilson and the environmental nonprofit San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper over the Taiwanese company’s illegal dumping. Formosa also agreed to comply with “zero discharge” of all plastics in the future and to clean up existing pollution.

The settlement, the largest resulting from a Clean Water Act suit filed by private individuals, does not go directly to the plaintiffs, but is instead being paid out over five years into a fund supporting local projects that work to restore Lavaca Bay and reverse the damage caused by Formosa’s water pollution.

Wilson says $20 million of that money has already gone into establishing a multi-racial Matagorda Bay sustainable fishing cooperative to revive the local fisherfolk. “They don’t have fish houses. They don’t have a place to get ice. They don’t have a place to get fuel, and if they happen to catch any shrimp, they have to get in their trucks and sit on the side of the road and sell them,” Wilson tells Truthout. “We’re trying to revive the industry and bring back the communities, and just as we’re trying to do that, they want to disrupt the entire Matagorda Bay, the whole area, and it will be catastrophic.”

She tells Truthout she’s considering filing another lawsuit to stop the channel expansion project, working with a coalition of attorneys, including those at Earthjustice. She’s already risked her well-being once to protect the bay from Formosa, she says, and now she’s ready to put her life on the line to protect it from further mercury pollution and oil exports.

“[The bay is] closed for fishing because of the mercury level in the fish, and yet they’re going to be going right through it and resuspending [the mercury in the food chain],” she says. “And then not only will it amplify it in the food chain, … it will also make it more readily available to the [Formosa] pellets floating all over the bay area, and the fish eat [the pellets], so it would spread the level of contaminated fish much, much further. It really is a mess, and they’re trying to expedite it.”

Pressuring Biden

Wilson is part of a coalition of Gulf Coast community leaders who delivered a letter this week signed by more than 230 climate, environmental justice, Indigenous, youth and community groups calling on President Joe Biden to reinstate the federal ban on crude oil exports by declaring a climate emergency. The week of actions marks the launch of a new Stop Fossil Fuel Exports campaign, which seeks to amplify the voices of frontline Gulf Coast communities of color most impacted by oil and gas exports in advance of Biden’s virtual climate summit today.

Congress’s reversal of the 40-year-old crude oil export ban in 2015 has enabled a massive fracking boom in Texas’ methane-blasting Permian Basin oil fields and elsewhere, driving an expansion of oil export infrastructure projects. Since the ban was lifted in 2015, fossil fuel exports have skyrocketed, increasing 750 percent, according to an analysis by Greenpeace USA and Oil Change International. The report found that nearly a quarter of all crude extracted in the U.S. is bound for export as of 2019. Fracked gas exports are on a similar trajectory.

The export ban reversal, however, has also played a major role in hastening the oil and gas industry’s financial demise, after the industry rushed to extract as much as possible, amassing debts that it couldn’t repay even before the global pandemic. Newer projects like Max Midstream’s Matagorda dredging plans, industry heads admit, are a last-ditch effort to revive an ailing industry.

“At a time when the oil and gas market is down, this project and partnership reflects proof that Texas is bouncing back and will remain resilient in being the world’s leader in oil production,” Max Midstream President Todd Edwards told Natural Gas Intelligence. The company did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment on the environmental impacts of its Matagorda Ship Channel expansion plans.

Wilson and other Gulf Coast community leaders like Melanie Oldham of Citizens for Clean Air and Clean Water in Freeport, Texas, say that if the dozens of proposed oil and gas export projects under federal jurisdiction are built, Gulf Coast communities that are already environmental sacrifice zones are likely to take a double hit from climate-induced disasters. Oldham’s Gulf Coast community of Freeport faces two oil export projects, the Sea Port Oil Terminal and Texas GulfLink, whose emissions she fears will raise ozone levels to hazardous levels as air quality declines in the predominantly Latino community.

“There’s a dramatic disconnect between President Biden’s climate and environmental justice ambitions, and the reality of our oil and gas exports market run amok. To protect our communities and make good on his promises, Biden needs to end fossil fuel exports now,” says Oldham, who is in Washington, D.C., this week to deliver the coalition letter to the Department of Energy and meet with her congressman.

The Biden administration announced its International Climate Finance Plan during today’s Leaders Summit on Climate, committing to “end international investments in and support for carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy projects” at multilateral and bilateral finance agencies such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and U.S. Export-Import Bank.

Climate justice activists said the new restrictions are still insufficient to address the reality of the climate crisis, pointing out that the restrictions still allow loopholes that support midstream and downstream fracked gas projects. Banning U.S. public financing for overseas fossil fuel projects and exports of U.S. crude oil overseas, they say, is low-hanging fruit.

Biden made a qualified statement on banning fossil fuel exports while on the campaign trail in 2020, telling a CNN climate town hall that, “I think we should [ban fossil fuel exports], in fact, depending on what it is they’re exporting for what they’re replacing. Everything is incremental.”

The president could ban fossil fuel exports immediately by declaring a national climate emergency. He can also use executive authority granted by federal environmental laws to stop expedited export infrastructure approvals and a substantial portion of fracked gas exports. Beyond executive action, Sen. Ed Markey, who reintroduced the Green New Deal resolution in Congress on Tuesday, has spearheaded legislation to reinstate the export ban.

Ending oil and gas exports is a core pillar of Build Back Fossil Free — a growing grassroots campaign pushing Biden to take executive action to end fossil fuel extraction, declare a climate emergency, and protect communities reeling from the climate and COVID-19 crises. Youth climate strikers and environmental justice activists are escalating actions united around these demands this week, including today’s Earth Day actions outside the White House demanding Biden stop all fossil fuel expansion.

Wilson says she’s hopeful the Biden administration will take action on crude oil exports and the Matagorda Ship Channel dredging, telling Truthout that Juan Parras, the founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services recently appointed to the White House’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council, recently paid her a visit at her mobile protest encampment at Lavaca Bay.

Earthworks’s Buckner says the coalition is working on another letter they plan to deliver to the Biden administration early next week outlining major concerns about the project’s planning process and asking the administration to revoke its permit — or at a minimum, conduct a supplemental EIS that properly studies mercury impacts and consults surrounding communities of color under a 1994 executive order on environmental justice that requires federal agencies to do so.

“I think what we’re asking is in line with what Biden has been saying about environmental justice and about climate change,” Wilson says.