Skip to content Skip to footer

Don’t Tread on Us: Rural Texas Community Takes on the Trans-Pecos Pipeline

The transition away from fossil fuels cannot incorporate expanding markets for fossil fuels.

(Photo: Vicki Gibson)

UPDATE: On the afternoon of May 5, FERC issued an Order Issuing Presidential and Granting Authorization for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline.

This article is a follow-up to one published in Truthout a year ago: A Pipeline Strikes Deep in the Heart of Texas

If there was ever a time when we could accept unchallenged the idea that “domestically produced natural gas can play an important role in the transition to a clean energy economy”, that time is long gone. Reason basedon increasingly dire scientific models would indicate that — for the sake of a habitable planet — the transition away from fossil fuels cannot incorporate expanding markets for fossil fuels. Yet this absurd logic is precisely what the fracking industry and its proponents hope will be accepted without a critical thought.

If natural gas were truly intended to serve as a temporary, interim fix — a“bridge technology” — one wonders how the billions currently being pumped into construction of dozens of new oil- and gas-dependent infrastructure projects across the country could possibly be justified? In light of increasing evidence that fracking is neither good for the climate nor safe for communities and the fact that renewable sources of energy are competitive, why is it allowed to continue at all?

These questions loom large in the wild and remote Big Bend region of far West Texas where Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) intends to a bury a 42″ high-pressure gas pipeline in 143 miles of fragile Chihuahuan Desert terrain. For over a year residents have been struggling to understand how a privately owned pipeline designed to export 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas per day to Mexico for a minimum of 24 years while serving not a single domestic customer is in the “public good”.

It turns out that in the state of Texas, “public good” can be defined as any business venture from which a private entity turns a profit. And as long as the pipeline can be designated as “intra-state” (we’ll get back to how an international pipeline can be classified as intra-state later) it is exempt from federal oversight that would require extensive studies of environmental and cultural impact. Energy projects in Texas are “regulated” solely by the Texas Railroad Commission, a misnamed agency that has nothing to do with trains and everything to do with assuring that the oil and gas industry gets its way. In fact, if a pipeline company in Texas believes its project warrants the use of eminent domain to acquire property from private landowners, it’s as easy as putting a check-mark next to “common carrier” on the Railroad Commission’s T4 permit — no additional justification required. That is, unless a threatened landowner has the wherewithal to challenge the classification in court.

How did a system so skewed against the rights of private citizens come to exist? This question is best answered by following the money. In 2014, ETP CEO Kelcy Warren gave $555,000 to Governor Abbot’s campaign. In 2015, Abbot appointed Warren to the board of Texas Parks and Wildlife. In the past seven years, ETP’s PAC has given nearly a quarter of a million dollars to the campaigns of three Republican Texas Railroad Commissioners. In 2015 former Texas Governor Rick Perry made $365,000 serving on the boards of Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners, both headed by Kelcy Warren. Warren donates money to the University of Texas. The UT and Texas A&M endowments are supported largely through fracking and drilling on University lands. Suffice it to say it is difficult to separate the Texas state government from the oil industry itself.

At the same time, in Texas, property rights are not to be messed with. The mottos “Come and Take It” and “Don’t Tread OnMe” can be found on flags flown with pride across the state. In general, these sentiments convey an independence of spirit aimed mainly at government interference. But what happens when a corporation is allotted the same kind of power that was once afforded only to governments, and once came with (ostensibly, at least) a fair chance to challenge unjust terms? Suddenly, those who have typically supported deregulation of industry face a philosophical dilemma: if not a government, should a corporation have the right to come and take it?

Over the course of the past year, in this far-flung corner of the world, stereotypes have broken down. “Don’t Tread On Me” has morphed into “Don’t Tread On Us”. Ranchers, teachers, artists, park rangers, border patrol agents and others who might not see eye to eye under other circumstances have found common ground and joined forces. One particularly striking example occurred when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) opened the Trans-Pecos Pipeline docket to public comment and the Big Bend Conservation Alliance mounted a campaign to help local citizens get involved. Over 600 individuals filed detailed reports on endangered ecosystems, species, and cultural resources. Defend Big Bend, the creative arm of the local opposition, has helped provide a forum for the community — including many people who had never imagined participating in activism — to work together around a common cause.

Some local land- and business owners who at first were in favor of the pipeline project believing that it would provide revenue and jobs have been disappointed by Energy Transfer Partners’ lack of transparency and underhanded tactics. The economically depressed border town of Presidio was promised they would receive municipal gas service from the pipeline, but the millions of dollars required to implement such a plan has yet to materialize. Several of the 45 landowners served (so far) with eminent domain lawsuits by ETP believed they were in the midst of good faith negotiations when they received notice of the suit. In July 2015 when Energy Transfer Partners gave a presentation to concerned citizens in Alpine, Texas, they told the community that eminent domain is used only rarely, as a last resort.

Even though approximately 53 miles of the total 143 mile route is currently bound up in eminent domain proceedings andthe Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has yet to issue the permit for the tiny (1093′) segment of pipe under their jurisdiction (the part that would cross the border into Mexico beneath the Rio Grande), pipe has begun arriving in the Big Bend by train. And herein lies the answer to the question about how an international pipeline can be classified as “intra-state: as far as the Texas Railroad Commission is concerned, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline terminates at the border, still within the state of Texas. This is called “impermissible segmentation” — a standard tactic used by pipeline companies to subvert regulations.

In fact, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline is but one cog in a much larger machine…namely, the strategic restructuring of Mexico’s entire energy system to run on natural gas. In 2013 when Mexico opened its fossil fuel industry to foreign investors, Carlos Slim, famed monopolist and the country’s richest citizen, together with the US, leapt at the chance to capitalize. But just 10% of the total quantity of gas to be transported via the Trans-Pecos Pipeline would go toward firingseven new power plants in Mexico — the other 90% is destined for liquefication and transport to Japan. Some have argued that, for Mexico, burning gas would be cleaner than current sources of energy, such as coal or wood. But there is little evidence that the few plants that would be converted to gas, along with increased dependence on gas the new plants would create, would lead to a net positive for the environment — or the Mexican people.

High on the long list of negatives is the fact that increased demand for natural gas would require an increase in fracking on both sides of the border. Fracking is known to cause groundwater contamination, earthquakes, air quality issues, and a host of other serious health, safety, and environmental concerns … with the release of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon, the wildcard at the top of the deck.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry presses blindly on in spite of plummeting gas prices and the world around it awakening tothe catastrophic effects of carbon combustion. Low oil prices in concert with a messy business deal has left ETP CEO Kelcy Warren’s net worth at 3 billion — less than half of what it was only a year ago.

Here in the Big Bend, we are watching with excitement as fossil fuel infrastructure projects on both coasts are being suspended. In Coos Bay, Oregon, FERC rejected the construction of an LNG port and, by association, a Kinder-Morgan pipeline, citing lack of overseas demand for the product. The Northeast Energy Direct Pipeline through New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, also owned by Kinder-Morgan, was cancelled due to “market conditions”, including lack of demand and low gas prices, the company claimed. The Williams Cos. Constitution Pipeline between Pennsylvania and New England was found to violate New York water quality standards. While these projects were stopped under circumstances that may not directly translate to Texas, the common denominator — and the one least cited by the industry — is sustained resistance by communities in their path.

This is one thing the fossil fuel industry in general and Energy Transfer Partners in particular can count on. Shamefully ironic corporate-backed campaigns to cast concerned citizens as “eco-terrorists” are backfiring. As evidence mounts that the industry has — for decades — been well aware of the harm it has been causing, the larger the environmental movement becomes.

Those of us who have been a thorn in Energy Transfer’s side for over a year are not going away anytime soon. In fact, ETP is finding out that thorns are a special adaptation that we desert-dwellers use for protection under even the harshest conditions.

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.