A few times during our phone call, chirping from a gaggle of winged visitors threatens to drown out Errol Summerlin's voice. He's on his porch in Portland, Texas, describing a David-and-Goliath battle to stop the largest plastics plant in the world from being built on the same jut of land where Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017.
"I'm a big birder," he tells me, noting how a mulberry tree in his yard encouraged some of the 400 species migrating along the Gulf Coast to stop for a snack. "From Baltimore Orioles to Summer Tanagers--you name it, they come by."
Birding is both a welcome distraction and a driving force for Summerlin's grassroots organizing, which has taken up much of his time since he learned in 2016 that a mysteriously named Project Yosemite was seeking a billion dollars in tax breaks, along with air and water permits, from the local school district, San Patricio County, and state officials.
"As we delved into who this was, and where they were building, outrage began to grow," Summerlin recalls.
The project turned out to be a $10 billion collaboration between Dallas-based oil giant ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabian-owned SABIC, one of the world's largest petrochemical manufacturers. They had requested tax abatements from the local school district on 1,400 acres of former farmland, next to what is now a wind farm, across from a low-income housing complex, and about a mile from Gregory-Portland High School.
There, the companies plan to erect an ethane "cracker," an industrial facility used to break down liquified natural gas, derived from fracking, into ethylene and then refine the ethylene into polyethylene pellets. Pellets would be exported via a new 1,000-car rail yard or proposed shipping terminal, to be molded into plastic products like bottles and caps, food packaging, and trash bags.
Summerlin, a retired legal aid lawyer who leads the local group Portland Citizens United, began to realize the project was part of a massive build-out of plastics infrastructure fueled by the shale-oil fracking boom. It threatens to turn the Texas Gulf Coast region known as Hurricane Alley into one big fenceline community, with eight new crackers and fourteen new polyethylene plants planned by 2022. This includes two crackers that went online in 2017 between Ingleside and Freeport, not far from where he lives in Portland.
So Summerlin started strategizing with other Texans who are connecting their struggles--against oil drilling, fracking, petrochemical production, and ocean pollution--amid an urgent push to reduce emissions that hasten climate change. They see great potential in uniting various campaigns against oil and petrochemical operations by companies like Exxon-Mobil, with those holding Starbucks and Coca-Cola responsible for single-use plastic pollution.
"We all have a common nemesis, if you will," says Summerlin.
In March of this year, Summerlin attended an invite-only "Break Free from Plastics" meeting in League City, on the outskirts of Houston, the sprawling megalopolis often called "the Petro Metro." The nickname refers both to Houston's car-centric culture and to the industrial areas around the Port of Houston where petrochemical refineries belch fumes into the air of neighborhoods populated mostly by low-income people of color.
Just a few miles east, Baytown is dotted with more petrochemical production plants--including a 3,400-acre ExxonMobil refinery and chemical complex that was...