ExxonMobil has engaged in a March advertising blitz, repeatedly airing a new commercial during national cable news channel breaks and prominently, during TV timeouts during the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I basketball tournament, better known as March Madness.
The commercial vaguely promotes what Exxon says is a new jobs initiative, which it claims will create 45,000 positions along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, without specifying details about the source of the jobs. Yet far from Madison Avenue advertising firms, a local battle has taken place the past several months in Gulf Coast communities over the prospective siting of and tax breaks for a proposed Exxon refinery co-owned by the Saudi Arabian state-owned company, SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Corporation).
A mere three weeks into the ad blitz, two Texas entities voted to give tax subsidies to the proposed facility, dubbed Gulf Coast Growth Ventures. Both representing San Patricio County, Texas, the San Patricio County Board of Commissioners and the Gregory-Portland Independent School District offered Growth Ventures over $1.4 billion in tax breaks for the $9.4 billion Exxon-SABIC plant.
The tax breaks came amid opposition by area fenceline communities, who have expressed concerns about the potential for explosions and air pollution stemming from the proposed petrochemical plant.
“The school board vote came despite a petition signed by 1,500 people who oppose the plant, citing safety and environmental concerns,” explained The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. “The plant would be less than 2 miles from the district high school. Previously, Portland’s city council approved a resolution asking Exxon Mobil to rule out their city as a site.”
Growth Ventures, if built, will refine petroleum into plastics, known in industry lingo as a “cracker” facility.
“One unit would produce monoethylene glycol, which is used in latex paints, automotive coolants and anti-freeze, or as a building block to create polyester for the manufacture of clothing and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for beverage bottles and containers,” Gulf Ventures explains on its website. “Additionally, two polyethylene units, would provide polyethylene for use in film, packaging, bottles and containers, and various sized pipes.”
Pollution and potential health effects from the current boom in cracker facilities were tackled in the February Food and Water Watch report, How Fracking Supports the Plastic Industry. The report points to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data to highlight that 13 petrochemical plants released 4.9 million pounds of toxic materials into the Louisiana environment in 2015. Texas, which will likely house Growth Ventures, already has 28 petrochemical plants, which released 13.8 million pounds of toxic materials in 2015.
Exxon is the top producer of natural gas in the U.S., which these days is extracted nearly exclusively onshore via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), the controversial horizontal drilling technique. Growth Ventures says on its website most of its gas will be sourced from Texas, with the site capable of producing 1.8 million tons of ethylene per year at its up-to-1,400-acre plant.
The final locations under consideration for the proposed plant include St. James Parish and Ascension Parish in Louisiana, as well as San Patricio County and Victoria County in Texas, with San Patricio the clear front-runner after offering the massive subsidy. Growth Ventures officials have called San Patricio its “preferred site.”
On its website, Growth Ventures says it expects to make a decision on the final location in the next 60–90 days.
At the launch of Exxon’s ad blitz, President Donald Trump came under fire for promoting the company’s jobs claim in a White House press release, which blatantly plagiarized the Exxon press release. Ghostwriting in support of Exxon isn’t limited to the White House, however.
The Growth Ventures website was registered by Renwick DeVille, a lobbyist in Louisiana who works for the firm Harris, DeVille Associates. The metadata for a company presentation for Growth Ventures also lists a Harris, Deville employee, Michelle Hultberg, as the author.
DeVille has previously ghostwritten letters for members of Congress in support of Exxon’s proposed Golden Pass natural gas export facility, as revealed in an April 2015 DeSmog investigation. The Golden Pass facility also fits under the umbrella of Exxon’s Growing the Gulf initiative.
The permitting process in San Patricio County, Texas, has been hotly contested, with Growth Ventures’ plans coming under fire by citizens at local government meetings. Robert Tully, Exxon’s executive for Growth Ventures, acknowledged the opposition in a March 21 open letter.
“Our GCGV team has conducted over 80 meetings to listen to residents and discuss the project,” wrote Tully. “Many of those meetings were encouraging and supportive, while others were pretty tough to say the least. But all were beneficial as we came away each time with a better understanding and a greater appreciation for the thoughts and feelings of the community.”
The leading group fighting against the facility, Portland Citizens United, whose membership consists largely of parents of young children, said on its website that the proposed facility site is located only a mile away from area K–12 schools.
“Many homes are literally across the street from the proposed location and would suffer tremendous property value loss and suffer the brunt of emissions as well as noise and light pollution,” they explained. “Similar Steam Cracking Plants (Baytown) produce the following emissions into the air, water or soil: Sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide (from burning of natural gas), Benzene (causes cancer), Butadiene (causes cancer), Greenhouse Gases like Carbon Dioxide, and Smog Air from volatile organic compounds.”
Growth Ventures is incorporated in Delaware, known as an onshore tax shelter, under the name GCGV Asset Holding LLC. Construction of the Gulf refinery is slated to begin in quarter two of 2020, with completion scheduled for the first quarter of 2024, according to forms filed with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
In a press release disseminated after San Patricio County, Texas, handed Growth Ventures the massive tax subsidy, Portland Citizens United said that it sees the school district’s subsidy offer as only the first chapter in the ongoing battle.
“Each of you has contributed in many ways to this effort and we should all thank each other for staying together and raising the awareness that had heretofore been silenced through secrecy,” they wrote. “They cannot turn a shovel on construction until the permit is issued. Stay strong.”