In Big Bend, Pipeline Opponents Claim Small Victory

A sign opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline hangs in a neighborhood near where the pipeline could run near Alpine.
A sign opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline hangs in a neighborhood near where the pipeline could run near Alpine.

A coalition of ranchers, environmentalists and other disgruntled landowners is claiming a small victory in its long-shot battle to block a hefty pipeline planned to carry natural gas beneath 143 miles of largely untouched Big Bend-area land into Mexico.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said this week it plans to ask Energy Transfer Partners – the Dallas-based company planning the pipeline – for more proof that Texas, rather than the federal government, should regulate most of the project.

The decision came after hundreds of people – including two county governments – filed public comments raising concerns about the pipeline, with many asking the federal agency to regulate the line.

Energy Transfer asserts that most of its pipeline is “intrastate,” meaning it would carry only Texas-produced gas to the border. In that case, the Texas Railroad Commission would regulate it.

But since Texas plays no role in routing pipelines or studying environmental impacts, opponents, led by a group called the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, have pressed the federal commission to designate the project a federally regulated “interstate” pipeline, subjecting the entire project to more review and a presidential sign-off. 

 

“In view of the commenters' concerns, FERC staff is seeking additional information necessary to confirm that the Trans-Pecos pipeline will be a non-jurisdictional intrastate pipeline,” the agency wrote this week in a letter to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, who had requested information.

Current plans call for federal jurisdiction only over the 1,093-foot stretch of pipeline that crosses below the Rio Grande and into Mexico.

Coyne Gibson, a former engineer in the pipeline industry who opposes the project, called the development “at least a stage one victory” in the campaign to stall the project.

“The message that people need to hear is their comments — their direct input into the system — are what drove this decision,” he said.

Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer, dismissed the decision as “business as normal” for such projects.

The 42-inch-wide Trans-Pecos would pump Permian Basin gas through scenic Brewster, Pecos and Presidio counties into Mexico, where officials have opened up the energy sector for the first time in 75 years. Energy Transfer plans to start moving gas by 2017.

Supporters say the pipeline will bring jobs to the region — even if almost all are temporary — spur more Texas drilling and yield a few million dollars in local tax revenue. Bringing natural gas into Mexico could help wean the nation's border cities off dirtier-burning coal, wood and heating oil.

Opponents say the pipeline will at least temporarily mar the near-pristine landscape, bringing safety risks, with some fearing they will lose their land to eminent domain.

FERC may still consider some of the entire pipeline’s environmental footprint, even if it does not change its classification. On Thursday, the agency said it would analyze the “cumulative impacts” all 143 miles of pipe in its environmental assessment, which could eventually lead to a stricter review. The pipeline's foes also welcomed that news. 

Still, experts have called it unlikely that FERC would claim jurisdiction over the project, or require the most stringent environmental analysis for a pipeline that transports fuel easier to clean up than oil.

 

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