Oil drilling rigs stretch into the landscape for miles along Highway 67 as it weaves through west Texas’ Permian Basin, the landmass that has produced billions of dollars for the oil and gas industry, beginning in the 1920s and continuing with the hydraulic fracturing boom of today. “After you die, you will meet God,” says a highway billboard over the rigs.
Further west, in Pecos County, a natural gas processing plant can be seen flaring leftover product into the atmosphere. But drive another hour southwest, and evidence of the oil and gas industry’s heavy influence on the Texas economy gradually disappears. In less than two hours from the industrial activity, tourists may find themselves in the sleepy, picturesque city of Alpine. On a recent weekday, a buck walks across the street and into someone’s yard, forcing the city garbage truck to brake.
With historic hotels, mountain range views, and wildlife occasionally crossing the paths of people, Alpine is often advertised as the “gateway” to the pristine Big Bend region. The town’s population of 6,054 makes it the largest in the vicinity of the Big Bend National Park, which is a scenic 100 mile drive to the south. The town also has the region’s nearest hospital and nearest state university in relation to the park. Tumbleweeds sometimes blow across the nearby highway roads, like an old Western movie.
Twenty miles further west, crossing Brewster County into Presidio County, almost nothing is open in the small town of Marfa, aside from one dive bar, a Dairy Queen, and several expensive hotels. The art galleries and a wine bar will open later, giving the town what some people in the area deride as an “artsy fartsy” attitude. At night, the famous Marfa lights, a phenomenon still unexplained by science, sometimes appear in the sky.
Continue driving southwest, and the long lines of green pipeline are seen crossing through the mountains. The pipe follows along the road another 60 miles before reaching Presidio, a remote border town of 4,079. People who are employed here either work in retail or work for the government in some form, says local insurance salesman and realtor Todd Beckett. Presidio is still famous among some enthusiasts for an alleged UFO sighting over the Chihuahuan desert forty years ago. Otherwise, the town is quiet and surrounded by rugged terrain. With no source of natural gas, homeowners and restaurant owners here rely on propane. “I know some guys that shot a propane tank with tracers, they were pretty amazed with the explosion,” Beckett says.
People in Alpine, the most upscale and tourist-driven of the three towns, used to have passionate arguments at the local coffee shop about the natural gas pipeline currently under construction in this remote region of Texas. But all of that talk has mostly died down, explains local barista Danielle Arnold.
Natural gas pipelines of course criss-cross all over the United States. But at 143 miles long and 42 inches wide, no oil or gas pipeline project of this scale has ever been built in the Big Bend region, named for the curve that the Rio Grande makes along the Texas/Mexico border.
Gas to Mexico
Now, in Alpine, the pipe is already buried under FM 1703, the only road allowing access in or out of the Sunny Glen neighborhood, a residential section of town. Natural gas should begin flowing through the pipe by March of 2017, according to Trans-Pecos Pipeline operator Energy Transfer Partners, the same company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. The company says its new pipeline will deliver 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas from Texas’ Pecos County to Mexico, every single day.
Coyne Gibson, a volunteer firefighter in Jeff Davis County who worked as an engineer in the oil and gas industry before leaving in disgust in 1982, worries about the fate of the people living in Sunny Glen should that pipeline ever rupture, as natural gas pipelines sometimes do, as seen most recently when a natural gas pipeline exploded outside the Texas panhandle town of Spearman on January 17. One of Energy Transfer’s own pipelines burst and caused an explosion in the east Texas town of Cuero in 2015. There were no injuries. “The difference there is, the week prior to the explosion, they had 11 inches of rain, so the ground was saturated,” Gibson says.
The landscape here in far West Texas is much different. With dry brush and no groundwater, the area is already prone to blazes. Seven volunteer fire departments in the Big Bend region are responsible for 28,000 acres of land, and during fire season, Gibson says, his department may end up fighting three or four a day. The largest grassland fire in Texas’ history, in fact, began just two miles west of Marfa in 2011, destroying dozens of homes in the region and killing herds of cattle.
“Just look around you,” Gibson says, pointing to the dry ranch land on either side of the road where the pipe is buried, “and imagine what a small fire would turn into here in a matter of minutes.”
Chained themselves to equipment
Two hours from here, in Presidio County, a couple from Alpine named Mark and Lori Glover have invited the public and members of the Society of Native Nations, a nonprofit that represents indigenous rights, to camp out on their ranch property as a way to protest the pipeline. Though there are no Indian reservations in Texas, the group has tried to style their protest after the Standing Rock Sioux’s NODAPL resistance and spiritual camp. The Glovers and others have also several times this month chained themselves to construction equipment to halt work on the pipeline, resulting in their arrests. Gibson does not join this movement, preferring to try slowing the pipeline down through the courts. The nonprofit he volunteers for, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, is currently suing the federal regulators who rubber-stamped the project.
Though the Glovers’ protest camp has attracted some media attention, Gibson has a bleak view of that effort and the group’s lockdown protests. “It slowed down the construction process for about an hour. It was a minor inconvenience to the construction company,” Gibson says. “But it was a major inconvenience to law enforcement... And for what?”
Lori Glover responds to such criticisms: “What we’re doing is raising a lot more awareness... And it may not ultimately stop this pipeline, but I think it will definitely set the groundwork for future oil and gas regulation.” Then again, it’s not as if there are many other useful options to productively fight the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, as the project is called.
When Energy Transfer Partners executives and their contractors suddenly descended on the region to announce their project in the spring of 2015, they were not asking the public for permission to build their pipeline. They were simply telling people that a massive new pipeline would be built, right through some peoples’ private property, in fact, and that it was coming soon. Any concerns raised that the project may not benefit any entity other than Energy Transfer Partners would be easily mowed down.
Rancher is arrested
Suzanne Bailey used to live in front of an empty dirt lot near Alpine’s Sunny Glen neighborhood. Then, workers suddenly started putting up barbed wire fences on the plot of land directly behind her house. Pumpco Inc., a contractor hired by Energy Transfer Partners, was hauling in equipment to build the Trans-Pecos pipeline before many people even knew what it was. Bailey was immediately concerned about whether the contractor had obtained a permit to use the town’s precious water supplies. “That was my first battle, to go to the water district,” she says outside her home.
Heeding her concerns, in May 2015, three members of the Brewster County Groundwater Conservation District walked into the Pumpco yard. Two eventually left.
The remaining groundwater district member, a rancher named Tom Beard, stayed. He asked to speak with whoever was in charge, and for that person’s name. He never got it. Instead, one of the Pumpco people called the local sheriff. Beard was arrested for criminal trespassing on land now owned by Pumpco, and he got an additional felony charge for allegedly stomping on the deputy’s foot during his arrest. "We looked in the website,” the Brewster County Sheriff told a local news channel shortly after his arrest, addressing concerns that there was no permit to use the water, “and it said they could go to a permitted well and they could go into the property but if they were asked to leave they had to leave." (Beard did not return messages).
During rainstorms the lot now sometimes floods, causing a stream of mud to fall down the road and into the local community garden, a problem Bailey and Gibson said only appeared since Pumpco began building an equipment yard on the land. Bailey posts footage of the flooding on YouTube and has asked the company to stop violently shaking her house when they work -- she says the vibration from their equipment was once so intense that she worried the house would collapse -- which the company agreed to do, she says. Otherwise, that is all she can do. A “No Pipeline” sign on a sturdy wood frame remains in her driveway, directly in front of the pipeline equipment and work yard.
Park geologist gets warning letter sent to boss
Thanks to regulations that Barack Obama enacted in 2012, the federal government has allowed large oil and gas pipeline projects to be approved at a pace that environmental groups recently testified is unlike any they have ever seen. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, for example, began allowing oil and gas pipelines to pass under waterways through a fast-track process called Nationwide Permit 12, which evaluates each water crossing on its own rather than as a whole. In this case, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline makes 135 water crossings, and the Corps looked at each in isolation and determined that the pipeline would have no significant impact.
“The same thing happened with Dakota Access,” Gibson explains, though the Corps has recently agreed to launch a new environmental impact study for that project.
In May 2015, as word spread about the Trans-Pecos pipeline, one geologist from the national park tried to talk to the Corps about the project and the permitting process. The agency was “informally contacted” regarding the pipeline by Jeffrey Bennett, a geologist and hydrologist in charge of water and air resources management at the Big Bend National Park, according to a letter a pipeline contractor later wrote. The Corps apparently then passed this request along to Energy Transfer Partners.
“Upon learning of the Big Bend National Park’s interest,” wrote Gremminger and Associates, the contractor seeking environmental permits on behalf of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, “GAI sent David Larson, BBNP [Big Bend National Park] Science Chief, a letter providing him with information about the Trans-Pecos Pipeline project.”
A letter from the Trans-Pecos Pipeline operators describing their own project was not enough to satisfy Bennett's concerns. He continued asking the Corps of Engineers for the chance to review and comment on permitting documents relating to the pipeline. So Trans-Pecos responded by sending Bennett an email, containing what they described as “updated information about the project.” Then they sent a letter to Bennett’s boss.
"GAI and Trans-Pecos have become aware that Mr. Bennett, outside his official capacity, has been an outspoken opponent of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline Project,” Gremminger and Associates wrote to the park’s then-superintendent Cindy-Ott Jones. Included in their letter were links to news articles quoting Bennett, and one editorial Bennett had written for the local newspaper in which he detailed a long list of logistical and environmental concerns he had about the project.
As Bennett wrote to the newspaper in May 2015: "A pipeline on the scale of the one proposed by Energy Transfer Partners will permanently alter a 143-mile-long slice right through the middle of the Big Bend. It will be like a knife wound. I have done enough restoration work to know that they can never put it back together so that it supports the same vegetation or wildlife community.”
Commentary such as this, along with Bennett’s attempts to seek information about the project as a parks employee, “are in violation of C.R.F. Part 2635: Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch,” the Trans-Pecos contractor wrote in their subsequent letter to the park superintendent, referencing the law that punishes federal employees for unethical behavior.
“...we respectfully request that Mr. Bennett be removed from any further activity in an official capacity involving the regulatory process for these projects,” Trans-Pecos' letter concluded. Along with Bennett’s boss, Trans-Pecos also forwarded their accusations against him to the Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of giving final approval for the pipeline.
Bennett, who still works for the park, declined an interview request. In the end, it’s unlikely the result would be any different had the pipeline builders not bothered complaining about him.
Confusing regulations take county leaders by surprise
“It’s not something where you get up in the morning, you scratch your head, and say, ‘I’m going to make a pipeline,’” says Luc Novovitch, who was as a Brewster County Commissioner when he learned about the project. “It’s really heavy stuff. And we learned about it at the last minute, basically. That was very inconsiderate.” Novovitch, a former photographer for Reuters now living a quiet life in Alpine, still remembers the meeting when Energy Transfer Partners executive Rick Smith made a presentation for the county, back in April 2015. Novovitch understood little about pipeline regulations at the time or why the project was happening.
“Mr. Smith stated that no construction can begin without the proper permits to go into Mexico,” say minutes from that meeting, but as it turned out, there weren’t many permits Energy Transfer Partners actually needed to obtain to begin with. Though the pipeline is built to deliver natural gas to Mexico, Energy Transfer Partners maintains that most of its project only needs to abide by state regulations, because the pipe goes through only one American state. “Trans-Pecos Pipeline is located solely in Texas and is designated as a Texas ‘utility’ pipeline in accordance with state regulations,” says a presentation the company made in July 2015.
Never mind that the pipeline is designed to deliver natural gas under the Rio Grande and into Mexico. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of natural gas pipelines, has similarly agreed to only require a permit for the 1,093-foot portion of the pipeline that crosses the border.
“FERC has no jurisdiction over the intrastate pipeline portion of the Trans Pecos Project,” an agency spokesman tells ConsumerAffairs via email. In the state, the pipeline falls under the rule of the Texas Railroad Commission, whose regulators prefer a hands-off approach to oil and gas regulation. “T4 permits,” or permits to operate a pipeline in Texas, “are granted by the Commission as long as they contain the information our agency needs on where the pipeline is located (or will be located in the case of the Trans-Pecos pipeline) and what product it will carry,” writes agency spokesman Ramona Nye.
FERC ultimately granted its permit in May 2016, a year after construction had begun. Novovitch in the meantime helped lead a successful campaign to require Energy Transfer Partners to install thicker pipe and emergency shut-off valves, though only in the portion of the route that crosses Alpine. Otherwise, he says, “the system is already tilted to these companies, these entities, and that’s the way it is."
A town gets a vague promise
James Carpenter, who lives in California’s San Fernando Valley, purchased land in Presidio County near Marfa that he hopes to one day use to build an off-the-grid house. He had already sold some land in California to a solar company, and the company expressed further interest in building a farm on his land in Texas, he says. Then he got a letter in the mail from the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, followed by a phone call from their land surveyor.
“It was first that your land may be possibly taken by eminent domain, we want to do a survey. If you don’t agree to the survey you'll get sued, along those lines,” he recalls in an interview with ConsumerAffairs.
Carpenter began talking with the land man. They wanted a 50-foot easement on his 220 acre property and were willing to pay for it, but Carpenter felt the offer was so low that he needed to get an attorney. The attorney advised him to settle. The final offer, “I’m not allowed to say, but I can tell you that it’s way way less than what the solar farm was going to give me,” Carpenter says.
People who own land or massive ranches in the Big Bend region were among the first to learn the route of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. In the spring of 2015, landowners started getting letters in the mail, phone calls from surveyors, or in the case of rancher James Spriggs, survey stakes just appearing on his property without warning. (Energy Transfer Partners blamed their surveyors’ trespassing on “unclear county records regarding an old property transaction that shifted property lines,” according to a previous interview. The corporation’s spokespeople have not returned interview requests from ConsumerAffairs).
Eminent domain lawsuits
A total of 39 landowners are now facing eminent domain lawsuits from the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, with the landowners arguing (and some lower courts agreeing) that their land is worth more than what Energy Transfer Partners is paying for easements. But because the Trans-Pecos Pipeline is styling itself as a “common carrier,” or a private company providing a public utility, it is able to continue building its pipeline through private property even as dollar amounts remain disputed in the courts.
Texas laws allow for this “quick-taking” of land in such cases. "I always told my lawyer that I didn’t think it was right that they're using eminent domain for a private corporation,” Carpenter says.
Energy Transfer Partners’ claim that they are a common carrier is another legal gray area. “A number of people, including myself, raised the issue with Trans-Pecos, ‘So are you supplying natural gas to a distributor in the region?’ And the answer was initially no,” says Gibson, the volunteer firefighter, conservationist, and former oil engineer. “So as we went through this process, and Trans-Pecos began building this pretext that they will deliver natural gas to communities along the route.”
In comes Presidio, the town near the end of the route with no natural gas of its own, which may soon get a supply of it thanks to Energy Transfer Partners, depending on whom you talk to.
Presidio economic development manager Brad Newton, a self-described "Democrat with a gun," sounds confident this will happen. He describes a regular, six-inch-line that will be built to carry natural gas from the Trans-Pecos project, which is 12 miles outside, to the people of Presidio. “The six-inch line that everybody’s been talking about will service the needs of this community very easily,” Newton says in his small office across from a Payless shoe store.
Only the Trans-Pecos Pipeline has never made any guarantees, at least in writing, that its pipeline will actually bring natural gas to Presidio. “Do we have paperwork or things like that? No, this is Texas. They said they were going to do something, they generally do it,” Newton says.
Part of his belief that natural gas will come here relates to the decision of a chili company to already start building a new plant on the western edge of town. The chili plant, Newton says, will provide 6 full-time jobs and 45 seasonal jobs, and wouldn’t come to Presidio without knowing there would be natural gas. “For a town of our size, six jobs is significant,” Newton says.
The plant is now in charge of negotiating with a local utility to access the gas, and it’s unclear whether they will share their wealth. "The goal was to get the line to us, because I need it to start processing this year ,” says Donald Biad, owner of Biad chili. Eventually, he thinks, the natural gas will be transmitted to the residents of Presidio as well, but through a separate agreement.
In a telephone conference call, Energy Transfer Transfer Partners came up with a “significant contribution” to help bring natural gas to the people of Presidio, Biad recalls, though the contracts still weren’t finished when we talked last in mid-January. “Those contracts are, a matter of fact, being finalized now,” Biad said. The employees at his new plant, he says, may come from either side of the border. “We’re open for those people to come from Presidio or Ojinaga,” Biad said.
Of course, from the comfort of Alpine or Marfa, which also has natural gas despite being half of Presidio’s size, it could be easy to dismiss a poorer town’s desire for the same luxury. But Gibson doubts this pipeline project will solve that. “Honestly, if it were economical and possible for Presidio to have natural gas, I’d be among the first helping to make that happen,” Gibson insists. “It’s just not likely. The reality is something different than what’s been promised. It’s been one of those things where it’s being used as a pretext to justify the pipeline.”
What the future may bring
Pretext or not, it was enough to satisfy the regulators in Texas and Washington D.C. Back at the local coffee shop, a married couple who lives in the Big Bend region during winter months has plenty of opinions about the pipeline, none of them good, though they don't want their names attached to what they say. The couple chose to winter in a town thirty miles east of Alpine because of the charm, the weather, and the "lack of industrialization," as the husband describes it. "I liked it clean, quiet and undisturbed."
It's easy to forget that a century-long oil boom rules the land only several hours from here, and the pipeline, in critics' eyes, threatens to bring all that closer. "I don't want to use hackneyed or trite terms like environmental. But it was clean, healthy," he says.
He is exaggerating somewhat as he speaks in the past tense. Even with the construction yard and the pipeline work, Alpine still at least gives the appearance of being a clean, quiet, and undisturbed town. The region bears little resemblance to much of Texas. But with a new presidential administration that is even more supportive of fossil fuel extraction than the previous one, how towns like this may look four years from now is anyone's best guess.
Photos unless otherwise noted (c) Amy Martyn and M. Aaron Martyn