Environmental and community groups sued the U.S. Department of Transportation today over its approval of the Sea Port Oil Terminal (SPOT), a proposed massive Gulf Coast deepwater oil export facility off the coast of Brazoria County, Texas.

SPOT would be the largest offshore export terminal in the United States, with the capacity to export 2 million barrels of crude oil per day — a 50% increase over last year’s total oil exports. Operation of the facility would promote massive oil production expansion in the Permian Basin and disastrous levels of greenhouse gas pollution for the 30-year life of the project. Conservative estimates project that SPOT will lead to emissions equivalent to operating nearly 90 new coal-fired power plants.

Based on the project’s inadequate environmental and public health review and climate harms, Sierra Club, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Citizens for Clean Air & Clean Water of Brazoria County, Texas Campaign for the Environment, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the Department of Transportation today in U.S. federal court.

SPOT, owned by Enterprise Products Operating LLC, involves the construction of 140 miles of land-based and underwater pipelines, posing a substantial risk of oil spills that threaten water resources and the Gulf’s imperiled species, including several species of threatened and endangered sea turtles, as well as the critically endangered Rice’s whale.

The Maritime Administration, or MARAD — the Department of Transportation agency that conducts licensing review of proposed deepwater export facilities — failed to adequately assess the devastating oil spill risk and species harms from SPOT’s construction and operation.

In particular, MARAD ignored new information about risks to the Rice’s whale, one of the most endangered marine mammals on Earth, with a population of less than 50 individuals exclusively inhabiting the Gulf of Mexico. The species experienced nearly a 22% loss in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster; experts predict that SPOT will cause hundreds of oil spills during the project’s lifetime, which, along with increased vessel traffic and noise activities, could lead to the species’ extinction.

The project’s resulting air and water pollution will significantly harm the health and livelihoods of frontline communities, as well as Gulf ecosystems. SPOT will emit local ozone-producing and hazardous air pollution, which would exacerbate existing air quality problems for local communities and residents of Surfside, Freeport, and the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria region. These and other nearby environmental justice communities have long endured the severe public health harms of fossil fuel infrastructure development in the Gulf region, and the licensing of SPOT forces them to shoulder yet another unjust burden.

In the four years since SPOT submitted its initial licensing application to MARAD, environmental groups and community members across the Gulf have submitted tens of thousands of public comments and testified at public hearings to express their grave concerns over SPOT and the flaws in the agency’s analysis of project impacts. During this time, the need to address the climate emergency has become more urgent, air quality for local Brazoria County residents has been elevated to severe non-compliance, and the Rice’s whale has become more imperiled.

Petitioner groups’ lawsuit challenging the Department of Transportation’s approval of the project was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on January 19, 2023 pursuant to the Deepwater Port Act.

Statements from petitioner groups:

“Licensing SPOT exclusively serves the fossil fuel industry’s goal of extracting every last drop of oil from the Permian Basin, while failing the communities and ecosystems of the Gulf, our nation and global climate,” said Sierra Club Senior Attorney Devorah Ancel. “Considering the administration’s stated commitment to ‘tackle the climate crisis,’ it is particularly troubling that MARAD’s review of SPOT’s environmental and community impacts entirely fails to account for the project’s significant contributions to climate change, including impacts from excessive greenhouse gas pollution that will push temperatures higher in the Houston area and disrupt global climate.”

“We’re already dealing with the toxic pollution from the petrochemical industry in our community that harms our health,” said Gwen Jones from Freeport, TX. “By taking legal action, we’re making it clear today that we won’t stand for another facility, like the Sea Port Oil Terminal, to dump even more chemicals in our neighborhoods where Black and Brown families live.”

“Brazoria County is non-attainment for air pollution because of oil and gas operations, and the SPOT facility would add even more to those emission levels,” said Melanie Oldham with Citizens for Clean Air and Clean Water in Brazoria County. “We demand the Maritime Administration immediately revoke their authorization for the SPOT facility, because our community is already overburdened by the fossil fuel industry.”

“Everyone deserves clean air, water, and a healthy place to live,” said Sue Page, resident of Surfside Beach and member of Texas Campaign for the Environment represented in the suit by Earthjustice. “SPOT oil export terminal would threaten the air and water quality of my home. That’s why I am fighting this proposal, so that I can leave my grandchildren a beautiful, healthy place to swim and surf. We won’t sacrifice this special place for oil profits.”

“Of utmost concern is that SPOT would disproportionately impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color near the facility. Nearly 75% of U.S. census block groups within one mile of the project’s onshore infrastructure are potential environmental justice communities,” said Joanie Steinhaus, Gulf Program Director for Turtle Island Restoration Network. “In Brazoria County, where most of the SPOT Project would be located, industrial facilities release almost 40 million pounds of pollution annually. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the fossil fuel industry’s environmental degradation on frontline communities’ air, soil, water, and coastline.”

“The SPOT project’s miles of pipelines and oil tankers the size of the Empire State Building are not what a healthy Gulf looks like,” said Lauren Parker, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “Not only would this project lock in decades of climate-heating pollution, it could also condemn the majestic Rice’s whale to extinction. SPOT is a stain on the Biden administration’s climate and environmental justice record, and it needs to be stopped.”