When many people think of “the heart of Texas,” images of starry nights, immense landscapes, cowboys, coyotes, prairies, tumbleweeds and jackrabbits come to mind. All of these things still exist in the Big Bend region of far west Texas, which comprises an area roughly the size of Maryland, but with only .003 percent of the population (Maryland has 6 million inhabitants; the Big Bend is home to fewer than 20,000). With most of the countryside occupied by large ranches and state and federal protected areas, the Big Bend is one of the remotest intact bioregions in the country. The nearest cities containing conveniences, such as airports, box stores, and well-equipped medical facilities, are El Paso, 200 miles to the west, and the twin cities of Midland and Odessa, 140 miles to the east.
The dry climate, large unfragmented tracts of land, and distance from industry are the factors that give the night sky its extraordinary starriness. For this reason, the McDonald Observatory – one of the most respected astronomical research centers in the world – was established atop Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains in 1933. Big Bend National Park is one of only 12 designated “Dark Skies Parks” in the US.
The “heart of Texas,” however, is just one small part of a larger (and arguably less romantic) organism. Much of the rest of the state remains tethered to the boom-and-bust cycle of the fossil fuel industry. With easy reserves of oil in lessening supply, the process of extracting gas from shale – hydraulic fracturing – has been heralded as the technology of the endless boom, one that is “relatively clean burning” and has the capacity to “reduce dependence on foreign energy sources.” According to eaglefordshale.com, “The Eagle Ford Shale (EFS) is quite possibly the largest single economic development in the history of the state of Texas and ranks as the largest oil & gas development in the world based on capital invested.” But while those with ties to the industry have indeed been reaping economic benefits, costs in the form of negative impacts on human and environmental health have been high.
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As the fossil-fuel industry has encroached on the region, residents of “the last frontier” have been sensing that it would be only a matter of time before the unique, unspoiled qualities of the area (including its local tourist-based economy – in addition to the national and state parks and the observatory, the famed artists’ haven of Marfa and the mysterious Marfa Mystery Lights attract visitors from around the country and the world) would come under threat.
Large high-pressure gas pipelines require compression stations as frequently as every 40 miles along the route, loud and brightly illuminated … [which] periodically release methane combined with other harmful compounds into the atmosphere.
Dots began to connect in rapid succession starting in December 2013, when Mexico opened its energy market to foreign investors for the first time in 75 years. Shortly thereafter, in January 2014, President Obama traveled to Mexico to commend President Nieto on these new reforms. Articles claiming that drug cartels were standing in the way of oil and gas development in northern Mexico began appearing in business journals. Then, in the pre-dawn hours of February 22, 2014, “El Chapo” Guzman, elusive kingpin of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, was captured.
Proponents of fracking, including President Obama, have claimed that it is a “bridge technology,” an interim method of producing energy while making the transition to renewables. But not only has the safety and cleanliness (with regard to air, soil, and water, as well as net carbon release) of the process been called into serious question, so has its intended use as a “bridge.” By many indications, both the United States and Mexico have long-term plans for its use. In April 2015, the Texas Senate passed a bill that, if approved by the House, would abolish programs that support renewable energy. Page 28 of a 2014 Comisón Federal de Electricidad document shows a map of Mexico’s plan to build 28 new gas-fueled power stations by 2028.
A turning point for far west Texas came on June 12, 2014, when the Big Bend Sentinel reprinted a story from the Latin American Herald Tribune titled Mexico Announces Coynosa to Ojinaga Pipeline. We learned that the pipeline would be among the largest in the country: 42 inches, 6 inches larger in diameter than the famed Keystone XL pipeline.
By July, we had formed a group called the Big Bend Conservation Alliance and began holding meetings to educate ourselves about the possible impacts of oil and gas development on the region. We came to understand that large high-pressure gas pipelines require compression stations as frequently as every 40 miles along the route, and that these stations, in addition to being loud and brightly illuminated, periodically release methane combined with other harmful compounds into the atmosphere.
In January 2015 we learned that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, in collaboration with American company Energy Transfer Partners, headed by Kelcy Warren, had won the bid (coming in at $767 million, nearly half the allotted budget) to construct the pipeline, to be operational by 2017.
In March, landowners in Brewster and Presidio Counties – many of whom had no prior knowledge of the project whatsoever – began receiving terse letters from Energy Transfer Partners requesting permission to survey. Surveyors were caught trespassing – an offense that is not taken lightly in these parts – on the property of the former Brewster county judge.
Since neither the pipeline company nor elected government officials had yet to call a public meeting to explain what was happening, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance announced a community forum titled “What We Know, What We Don’t Know, What We Can Do About It” to be held in a conference room at the local public library on April 8. More than 100 people crowded into the small space, while 50 or more stood huddled outside straining to hear through the open windows. Members of the BBCA said a few words, then opened the floor to comments.
Citizens from all facets of the community were outraged – border patrol agents, park rangers, astronomers, ranchers, teachers, artists, business owners and even several former oilfield workers were overwhelmingly united in opposition. Whether individual concerns focused on threats of eminent domain or potential impact to health, the environment, or the tourism-based economy, partisan divisions suddenly fell away.
Potential benefits of the project were among the many issues raised that evening that could not be adequately addressed without further input from an authority. In need of consideration were rumors that the pipeline would bring jobs and gas service to area municipalities that were lacking it, relying instead on grid-tied electricity and propane. Economic development is an especially pressing concern for Presidio and Ojinaga, neighboring towns on either side of the border that have suffered economically due the dwindling flow of the Rio Grande and declining viability of the land for agriculture, as well as lack of industry.
Why is this multibillion-dollar pipeline allowed to be classified as an “intrastate” one – with all protections from national oversight this affords – when the project is being touted very publically as an international one?
Within days of the BBCA meeting, Energy Transfer Partners announced a series of open house forums to be held in the towns of Presidio, Alpine and Fort Stockton on April 21 and 22. In spite of the fact that the meeting in Presidio was scheduled for 9:30 am on a Tuesday morning, more than 50 local residents attended. The meeting in Alpine was held at 5:30 pm. More than 200 people packed the local civic center. Upon arrival, instead of the expected town hall-style public question-and-answer format, residents were met by cheerful greeters who led potential antagonists into an open space containing approximately 30 white-shirted ETP representatives, informational posters and tables set with finger foods and ETP key chains free for the taking. Individuals were encouraged to pose questions to ETP agents one-on-one. Agents deferred queries to one another depending on expertise. Will eminent domain be used? How wide is the “blast zone”? Will an environmental impact study be undertaken before the work begins? As it turned out, definitive information was in short supply.
When ETP representatives were asked to comment directly on whether their company would provide natural gas service to the city of Presidio, they explained that while it may be possible to install a tap (or “lateral tie”) into the pipeline from which city gas service could be derived, the company has no plans to provide the necessary infrastructure. With regard to the question of how many local jobs (both permanent and temporary) would be created by the pipeline, ETP representatives stated that any such figures could not be known for sure until construction was underway, but that permanent local jobs were unlikely.
Other potential benefits, according to ETP, would include millions of dollars per year in recurring ad valorem tax revenue paid by ETP to the counties (ETP has suggested that they will pay approximately $30,000 in ad valorem taxes per mile of pipe, or about $1.9 million annually for Presidio County, $1 million per year for Brewster County). Among the questions that have yet to be answered: Would a million dollars be enough to offset the loss of revenue from tourism, cost of wear and tear on roads due to additional truck traffic (especially during the first year when pipe will be trucked in daily from Fort Stockton), and added strain (including any necessary additional equipment and training) on law enforcement and first responders? Who will cover costs in the event of catastrophe? What about devaluation of local property? Would people with homes or land on or near the pipeline route ever be able to resell? Will the county and city lose revenue in property taxes due to reduced valuations? Will the pipeline infrastructure make our area more conducive to future oil and gas development (i.e.: fracking)? If so, will the water-intensive process drain or contaminate our aquifers?
And the question to which we are perhaps in most urgent need of an answer: Why is this multibillion-dollar pipeline allowed to be classified as an “intrastate” one – with all protections from national oversight this affords – when the project is being touted very publically as an international one? ETP has been granted a T-4 permit from the Texas Railroad Commission – the only permit required of intrastate projects – claiming that their pipeline will serve as a “common carrier” or “gas utility.” Thanks to a Supreme Court decision in 2011 (Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury), however, a corporation cannot simply declare that its business is in the common interest and proceed to condemn lands in its way – “public use” must be determined in a court of law. That is, if landowners threatened with eminent domain are prepared to demand it.
The breakneck speed at which the TPP project is proceeding would indicate that keeping the public in the dark – building first and dealing with any consequences related to lack of regulatory compliance later – is a carefully calculated strategy. Informed dissent causes delay and complication that cuts into ETP’s bottom line. Opposition could even expose failings that would halt the project completely.
Who will ultimately benefit from the Trans Pecos Pipeline – the Texans in its path, consumers in Mexico who are being offered neither energy independence nor a more sustainable choice, or the billionaires behind it?
In the end, whether or not we are able to halt the national race toward further dependence on fossil fuels and the associated construction of pipelines – like this one aimed at the heart of the Big Bend – may come down to how we as a society choose to define “public good.”