BREWSTER COUNTY — Peering from beneath the brim of his Indiana Jones-style fedora, David Keller marvels at the gently sloping mountains in Big Bend that frame everything in sight.
"It’s sacred landscape. It is truly the last best place in Texas,” says Keller, an archaeologist at nearby Sul Ross State University's Center for Big Bend Studies who very much looks his part: the scruffy goatee, the beige button-down shirt torn at one elbow and, of course, that brown hat. “When you destroy that landscape, you lose that sense of place.”
Raised in Lubbock, Keller moved here for a field hand job more than a decade ago, and quickly fell in love with the wide-open spaces – the volcanic rocks, the yucca and agave plants. But he's spent the better part of the past four months worrying that it could all change, and he's poured hundreds of hours into a long-shot campaign aimed at protecting this sparsely populated region.
The object of his apprehension: the planned 42-inch-wide Trans-Pecos Pipeline, expected to stretch beneath 143 miles of Big Bend-area terrain, and begin carrying Permian Basin natural gas to Mexico in 2017.
“We’ve never faced anything like this in the history of the region," says Keller, who leads a coalition of environmentalists, ranchers and disgruntled landowners who are proclaiming "not in our Big Bend," in a battle against billionaires on both sides of the border. Keller is carrying out this role as a private citizen and not a university employee.
A consortium of energy companies wants to pipe Texas gas into Mexico, now that the country has opened up its energy sector. The project's few vocal supporters say the pipeline will bring jobs to the region – even if almost all are temporary – and will spur more Texas drilling and yield a few million dollars in local tax revenue, too. And bringing natural gas into Mexico could help wean the nation's border cities off of dirtier-burning coal, wood and heating oil.
But Keller's scrappy crew, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, worries that building the pipeline – which would be buried at least 4 feet deep – will at least temporarily mar this near-pristine landscape. Some fear the Trans-Pecos will bring safety risks, like ruptures that could start wildfires. Others don’t want the companies to gobble up their land using eminent domain. And some simply want to have a greater voice in the matter, or any say at all.
Since March, Big Bend opponents of the pipeline have often been left with more questions than answers as they try to quickly grasp complex concepts of state and federal energy law. Their chances of winning are slim in a state that plays virtually no role in routing pipelines.
Many residents here know the odds. But as the locals pack town hall meetings, spread anti-pipeline yard signs and bumper stickers, scrutinize the project in their newspapers, and flood regulatory agencies with questions and comments, they insist this deal is not done. They can still make the outsiders sweat.
Their main strategy: Just slow things down.
Energy Reform Across the Border
About 426,000 miles of pipeline — about one-sixth of the nation’s network — crisscross Texas, carrying oil, gas and other hazardous liquids. But large swaths of the Big Bend area are pipeline-free, largely because the region – with its mountains, state and national parks, and famously dark skies — is so secluded.
Mexico’s historic energy reforms could change that. Last year, the country opened up its state-run energy monopoly to private investment, overhauling a 75-year-old policy of isolation. That pumped plenty of excitement into Texas, where officials have talked about partnerships that could lift border towns out of poverty.
While a tumble in oil prices has stalled investments in Mexican oil, the country is investing billions of dollars on other energy projects. Among those are several major pipelines that will send Texas gas into Mexico, which has faced shortages of the resource that have forced it to burn dirtier fuels. The Trans-Pecos is one of those projects. Though developers have not confirmed the pipeline's precise route, it would start at the Waha storage hub near Fort Stockton and cut through Pecos, Brewster and Presidio counties before crossing beneath the Rio Grande near the town of Presidio. It could bring up to 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas over the border each day.
In January, a consortium including Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners and Mexico's Carso Energy won a $767 million contract with the Comisión Federal de Electricidad, Mexico’s federal electricity commission, to build and operate the pipeline. The consortium will also build the 30-inch-wide Comanche Trail pipeline, which would run from Waha to San Elizario, south of El Paso. It, too, has stirred angst along its proposed route, but those residents haven’t been as loud.
Kelcy Warren is Energy Transfer’s CEO and chairs its board of directors. The Dallas billionaire has been a major supporter of former Gov. Rick Perry’s political endeavors and welcomed him to the company's board in February.
Warren is partnering with a fellow billionaire on the pipeline project. Carlos Slim, worth nearly $73 billion and the world’s second-richest man, owns Grupo Carso, the conglomerate umbrella of Carso Energy.
The company says it plans to start building the pipeline in early 2016. Big Bend-area residents, who first learned about the project in late February or early March, say developers are moving awfully fast on the biggest industrial project they’ve ever seen.
“Nothing is perfect, and we understand how they’re feeling, and that’s why we want to make sure we’re listening,” says Vicki Granado, an Energy Transfer spokeswoman. “We want to be and need to be a part of these communities, you know, good partners, good neighbors.”
A Rocky Start
“They figure they can just show up and condemn your land,” says Tom Beard as he and his wife, Val, a former Brewster County judge, drive around their sprawling ranchland that borders a tiny ghost town called Hovey. Spotting a rattlesnake lying in some grass, he parks, grabs a pistol from the console and steps out of the truck. Beard tries to shoot the rattler, but the gun is jammed, sending him back to the driver’s seat. With the push of the gas pedal, he flattens the snake under his left front tire – just to be sure it won’t be wielding its venom around here again.
The Beards say they have never considered themselves “anti-oil and gas” people. Petroleum companies have even explored parts of the ranch, which has been in Tom Beard’s family for generations. “I think energy independence is a good thing,” Val Beard says. “This experience has told me it’s got a downside.”
In March, Tom Beard said he spotted a surveyor not far from the couple’s house, and clearly on his property. Working on the Trans-Pecos project, the surveyor had shown up unannounced and without permission. Though the man quickly left after Beard told him to, the incident did little to win over the family or other landowners. In this slice of Texas, trespassing is “like cheating on somebody’s wife,” Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano told The Texas Tribune. “These guys really started out on the wrong foot, and that’s what kind of sealed their fate.”
Granado says the surveyor simply thought he had driven on a county road, rather than a private road. “There was an instance, and we apologized and moved off immediately.” Energy Transfer declined to make Warren or any other executive available for an interview.
The company has held public meetings in each affected county, including one last week in Alpine, where the city council has approved symbolic measures opposing the pipeline, and a recent meeting in Presidio – both of which appear to have directly resulted from the local unrest. Energy Transfer recently launched a public relations campaign, taking out large advertisements in the local newspapers that have criticized the project, and designing a sleek new website that displays mountain imagery alongside project facts and language touting the company's commitment to the environment and safety.
“I think they’re trying to do damage control. But it’s almost like inertia. These things are hard to stop,” says Cano, the Brewster County judge, who has not taken a hard public stance on the project for fear of losing bargaining power – if the county even has any.
About the time of the March trespassing incident, Energy Transfer sent notices about its plans to the Beards and other landowners along the proposed route. Some locals have quietly made deals to let Energy Transfer use their land, but others, like the Beards, are holding out – even though the company has said it may claim the land using eminent domain (while paying its market value), leaving landowners with less bargaining power.
The Beards say any pipeline mishap on their land – particularly if any gas leaked into a large spring that supplies most of their water – could devastate their ranching operations, which include around 1,500 head of cattle. Energy Transfer, which directly owns and operates about 12,600 miles of interstate gas pipeline across the U.S., insists that its pipelines are safe and could be shut down remotely in case of emergencies. The company says it plans to train local responders in case of an emergency.
But just a month ago, another Energy Transfer gas pipeline ruptured in South Texas, outside of Cuero, sending flames into the sky. No one was injured, but three homes were evacuated. Opponents of the pipeline say the incident shows what could go wrong in Big Bend — an area prone to wildfires where short-staffed emergency responders often rely on ranchers and other citizens to help fight fires.
And for what, Val Beard asks. “It’s just infrastructure for Mexicans.”
Historically, pipeline companies in Texas have had no trouble seizing land through eminent domain when negotiations fail. Until this March, they could simply mark a box on their application to the Texas Railroad Commission that says the pipeline will be a “common carrier” open to public use.
Landowner groups and some libertarians have long criticized the system, saying that that the agency never checked whether companies were telling the truth. The agency permits and inspects pipelines but has no power over routing or studying environmental impacts (no other state agency does either). It also lacks power to grant eminent domain. That’s the job of Texas courts, which typically settle such costly disputes long after a pipeline is built. The Railroad Commission merely issues pipeline permits “so that we have information on Texas pipeline locations and the product they are carrying,” says Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman.
Following years of complaints about the honor system, the agency issued rules, effective in March, requiring companies to submit documentation — including a sworn statement and potential tariffs or contracts with other companies — supporting a common carrier claim and to give the commission extra time to review an application. (Courts, however, still have the final say over whether companies can condemn land.)
Energy Transfer calls itself a common carrier. But the commission did not require the company to submit any of that information, because it applied for a permit about a month before the new rules took effect. It has not submitted any of those extra documents, agency records confirm.
Asked whether any other companies have signed contracts to use the pipeline, Granado, the spokeswoman, said, “We don’t release that kind of commercial information.” Granado said the company planned to install five taps for gas along the pipeline – three in Presidio County, and one each in Brewster and Pecos – in case any companies want to serve residents there. Still, she said, most of the gas is destined for Mexico.
Some Local Support
Not all Big Bend residents oppose the Trans-Pecos pipeline. Some even welcome it, saying it could bring temporary jobs and tax revenue to the communities it passes through, and maybe even some environmental benefits.
“The view at the border is definitely different than 100 miles away from the concerned folks in Alpine,” says Brad Newton, executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District, and one of the biggest local champions of the pipeline and what he calls the “silent majority of supporters.”
Along the Texas-Mexico border, Presidio residents have long breathed in pollution – from burning coal, heating oil or wood. Some of it wafts over from Mexico. Newton and others say that pumping cleaner burning natural gas into the country could help alleviate that problem and reduce the haze that occasionally obscures scenic views. The federal EPA has proposed "regional haze" rules specifically targeting power plants that make national parks – including Big Bend National Park — smoggy. Texas regulators have criticized the rules, saying they can't address the pollution that starts in Mexico.
“If we’re going to have to make a carbon footprint, we should make a minimum carbon footprint, and the best way to do that is with natural gas,” Newton says.
But mostly Newton sees economic opportunities for his city, where more than 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line. He hopes that its residents, which largely depend on propane, can tap the gas, perhaps drawing in new businesses, like the chile roasting factory he's recruiting.
“We’re going to make them a common carrier, because Presidio needs gas," he says of the pipeline company. “We welcome them here in Presidio.”
Turning to the Feds?
Because state regulators don't oversee pipeline routing, protesters have turned to the federal government, flooding the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) with comments and pleas.
The federal agency has jurisdiction over the 1,093-foot stretch of pipeline that crosses below the Rio Grande and into Mexico. It's in charge of evaluating any environmental impacts — and choosing how stringently to do so. Ultimately, the U.S. State Department must sign off.
In hundreds of public comments, Big Bend residents — along with Brewster and Presidio counties — have asked FERC to take a harder look at the pipeline and even take control of the entire 143-mile route, rather than handing Texas authority it won't necessarily use.
But experts call it highly unlikely that FERC would claim jurisdiction over the project, or to require the most stringent environmental review for a pipeline that transports fuel easier to clean up than oil.
“The trend for these shorter pipeline interconnections is shorter review process,” says Carlos Romo, an energy and environmental attorney at the law firm Baker Botts. “Even if they’re in sensitive areas, the ability to do trenches for natural gas pipelines and do things underground limits the impact that it might have on environmental resources, like water or endangered species.”
Despite the odds, the opponents of the Trans-Pecos vow to continue the fight.
“We aren’t accepting it as a done deal,” says Val Beard.
Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that Big Bend Conservation Alliance leader David Keller is carrying out this role as a private citizen and not a Sul Ross State University employee.