SEPTEMBER 09, 2016


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) last week announced it had formed a partnership with Rio Grande LNG, one of the three companies seeking to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal along the Brownsville Ship Channel. Reactions from local residents, particularly those who have opposed the terminals, were mixed.
In a statement released Aug. 31, the university said it had, “entered into a strategic partnership to foster STEM-based (science, technology, engineering, and math) education programs, facilitate research and job training opportunities for UTRGV students, and promote collaboration between academia and industry.”
But just what exactly that means for in concrete terms remains unclear.
Reached for comment by phone, Patrick Gonzales, the university’s associate vice president of marketing and communications, couldn’t offer specifics about how the partnership will take shape. Asked if the partnership would result in specialized curriculum programs, scholarship opportunities, or priority consideration of UTRGV students for jobs, he responded that discussions are still ongoing. “That has not been decided yet. They are still having sessions.” he said.
“We are working to build on that. We are providing our knowledge, our expertise, our network, so the students of the RGV can benefit”, said Rio Grande LNG Manager of Communications James Markham-Hill by phone Wednesday. He added that that the energy company is eager to work with UTRGV students and provide them with information about the industry.
“It’s a process. These things don’t get done overnight. This agreement is the beginning of that process,” he added.
Rio Grande LNG has long said it hopes to make use of as many local resources as possible in all phases of its project, from construction to staffing. Previously, the company held a vendor workshop on South Padre Island to seek out local service providers and vendors who would serve as potential partners. The company has also repeatedly stressed its commitment to partnering with local educational institutions.
“A lot of UTRGV students… are going to be Rio Grande LNG employees in the future,” Markham-Hill said. “We’ve been working with educational organizations throughout the Valley, at every level,” Markham-Hill said. “We’ve been talking with the university for a long time, and this is just the next step in formalizing our commitment,” he said.
In a region which has the unique distinction of being one of the poorest in the nation, fueled by a service and agricultural economy, UTRGV has been leading the charge to expand career opportunities for Valley students via a more varied education. STEM is a big part of that push. The Edinburg campus has annually hosted a popular STEM-centered fair called HESTEC to increase interest in STEM field studies. It has also maintained the Coastal Studies Laboratory on South Padre Island, and is currently planning to establish a living classroom via a boat that will dock in Port Isabel. It has also invested in numerous STEM facilities at both the Brownsville and Edinburg campuses.
Most recently, the Board of Regents approved construction of the $35.6 million Interdisciplinary Engineering and Academic Studies Building. “That’s a big priority for the university, is STEM education, not only the outreach portion of it, with the younger students, but our students as well,” Gonzales said.
“There’s not that many opportunities in the Valley for folks, for those students who are in college, and so this is where this partnership really helps with that,” he said.
Not long after news broke that UTRGV’s president, Guy Bailey, had signed the memorandum of understanding with Rio Grande LNG, a call to action went out social media urging opponents of export terminals to contact university and make their own opposition known.
“We have started a big campaign about calling President Bailey’s office,” said Laguna Vista resident Madelien Sandefur during a Friends of the Laguna Madre meeting Wednesday evening. She reported that at least 100 calls had been made to the university.
The university’s announcement was just one of several things discussed at the meeting, which was held at the Port Isabel Community Center. But not everyone was convinced the university’s partnership with Rio Grande LNG warranted protest.
Port Isabel resident Don Hockaday asked what, exactly, the group was meant to protest. “What they’re doing is within the mission of the university,” Hockaday said. “If Bailey backs out (of the agreement) A&M comes in,” he continued.
Hockaday explained his concerns, saying STEM-educated people will be needed at the facilities if they’re built. If UTRGV doesn’t take advantage of partnership opportunities, then another university will, meaning their students will reap the rewards over local students.”
“I would prefer to have people from Brownsville versus somebody with no affinity (for the Valley).” He said.
Former Mayor Calvin Byrd, who currently chairs the City’s Economic Development Corporation, agreed. Speaking after the meeting, he said he could see both sides of the argument.
Meanwhile, people on both sides of the issue continue to move forward.
Wednesday night’s meeting of the Friends of Laguna Madre marked what they hope will be the first of many regular meetings by the group. They plan to continue their outreach at public events throughout the Laguna Madre. And they hope to mobilize more members of the region’s shrimping and fishing industry, which could potentially be impacted by travel restrictions in the ship channel while LNG ships pass through narrow passages.
Rio Grande LNG along with Annova LNG and Texas LNG, will be on hand during a joint meeting of the Port Isabel and South Padre Island Chambers of commerce later this month. Representatives from the three companies will present updates on their projects during a breakfast meeting on Thursday, Sept. 29 at Port Isabel Event and Cultural Center. They’ll also respond to pre-submitted questions.

-Dina Arevalo