Surfside Beach resident Melanie Oldham speaks outside the Paramount Theater ahead of Buttigieg’s appearance (Photo by Lina Fisher)

Towards the end of the Texas Grandstands FestivalOpening Night Opening Remarks with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, a whisper ran through the Paramount Theater and heads bowed toward the house on the left. From the balcony, a bright yellow banner unrolled that read “Please Pete, stop SPOT No Fossil Fuel Exports”.

Someone shouted “Secretary Pete!”, the murmur increased, the phone cameras snapped, and Buttigieg kept talking. But during the question-and-answer section of the hearing that followed, he shouted approvingly at protesters that he was “drawing attention to a problem…as these people did here tonight exercising their First Amendment rights”.

This “problem” is Seaport Oil Terminal (SPOT), a proposed export terminal for the Gulf Coast outside of Houston. Residents of Harris and Brazoria counties, which include some of the most polluted communities in the country, provided 50,000 comments along with support from 30 environmental groups, including Earthworks and Citizens for Clean Air and Water, urging the United States Maritime Administrationwhich is part of Buttigieg County, to reject the terminal application, which is expected to be decided in November.

A proposed pipeline would transport 2 million barrels of domestic crude oil per day for global export via Very Large Crude Oil Carriers (VLCCs) from Houston to Surfside Beach, Melanie Oldhamis the city. She said, “We are one of those sacrifice communities Everybody talks about it. We have all kinds of health issues, cancer outbreaks in Brazoria County where we come from. We have high rates of respiratory heart problems and we are already overloaded. We are surrounded by Dow Chemical, BASF… Freeport LNG [liquefied natural gas terminal] is five minutes from my house.

SPOT is just one of six pending applications for new pipelines on the Gulf Coast. “We have so many pipelines,” Oldham said, “and people like my congressman Randy Weber say, ‘Well, what’s one more pipeline for you guys? What’s one more tank? We are in serious non-realization [of federal air quality standards] for ozone; it can’t be worse.

During the Q&A portion of his one-on-one keynote with the Texas Tribune CEO Evan SmithButtigieg responded to a question on SPOT: “Under public comment [as part of the project’s environmental review],, we got thousands of comments about it. We are now at a stage where there is not much I can do because of where it is in the legal process. But what I will say is that we are going to take all these comments very seriously. And that any results will comply with the law and meet the requirements [of DOT] as a department. Texas Campaign for the Environment tweeted that he is still awaiting a firm response:

Buttigieg was also a keynote speaker at South by Southwest earlier this year, when the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act (the “bipartisan infrastructure bill”) was still fresh and a priority; as Smith dryly noted, it was “infrastructure weekfor almost a year now. So they also talked about other things: how does it feel to be the only queer member of the Cabinet? How does it feel to find out your marriage is invalid? How are you Joe Biden Do? Do you remember when you beat him in the Iowa caucus? It was wild! Etc. (The questions posed by the audience, on the other hand, were all about his day-to-day work, not just SPOT, but also the Texas Department of Transportation’s controversial reconstructions of I-35 in Austin and the I-45 in Houston; the latter project got put on hold by Buttigieg’s department due to concerns that its review process ignored and/or violated the civil rights of affected communities.)

Buttigieg answered the most personal questions with such hesitant aplomb – you could tell he got used to being on display, his every move watched and commented on, for a while, and that’s not his favorite part. Labor – and noted that he could not imagine a circumstance where he would feel able to weigh in on the validity of Ted Cruz‘s marriage, so he just doesn’t understand why the reverse isn’t true. Do you?

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