A Pipeline in the Sand
A group of West Texans gird for battle against the oil and gas industry.
The pipeline company caught James Spriggs at a bad time. “I had been in town all day and I wasn’t happy with all the traffic,” says the soft-spoken 69-year-old rancher, who owns 4,400 acres of wide-open West Texas land south of Marfa. “So when they told me I had to sign an agreement or they’d serve me with paperwork in forty-eight hours, I felt I was down to my last nerve and they were stepping on it. I had been ready to sign the damn agreement, but I guess I just got tired of being pushed.”
Spriggs refused to sign the papers, which would have allowed a contractor working with the Dallas-based company Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to survey his property. In doing so, he became part of a movement that is fighting back against plans to build a pipeline in this remote, prickly part of the state.
More than 425,000 miles of pipeline crisscross Texas, accounting for approximately one sixth of the country’s pipeline mileage. The Big Bend region is one of the few parts of the state as yet untouched by such development, but that might soon change if ETP has its way. This past spring the company made public its plan to build a pipeline that will carry natural gas to Mexico. The 143-mile Trans-Pecos Pipeline would travel from the Waha Hub storage facility, near Fort Stockton, to the Rio Grande, passing through Alpine and the greater Big Bend region along the way. That includes a lot of private land, but ETP’s status as a “common carrier” in Texas means it has a great deal of leeway to override individuals’ property rights.
In recent months, opposition to the pipeline has coalesced, creating unexpected alliances between ranchers and environmentalists—and prompting conflict with locals who support the pipeline. “Since they arrived, these pipeline people have caused some people to unite who have never agreed on anything before in their lives,” rancher Joel Nelson says. “And they’ve caused people who have agreed on everything for half a century to become divided.”
Many residents of the Big Bend region first became aware of the proposed pipeline in March, not through official channels but through the grapevine, after local ranchers Tom and Val Beard happened upon a surveyor hired by ETP staking their property. “That’s totally not done out here, to come on someone’s ranchland without permission,” says Val, a former Brewster County judge. She says that ETP’s tactics have left a bad taste in her mouth. “My grandfather was an oil operator. I grew up in the oil patch. The money the industry has brought in has done a lot of good things for the state. I’m for energy independence. But this experience has changed my attitude one hundred and eighty degrees, at least in regards to the pipeline industry.” Her husband’s attitude seems even more vehement: in May Tom was arrested for trespassing on the pipeline staging ground near Alpine, where he was investigating reports of unpermitted water use. He was also charged with felony assault of a public official for stomping on a deputy’s foot.
Though ETP later said the surveyor had made a mistake in trespassing on the Beards’ land, the company isn’t trusted by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA), a hastily organized group of archaeologists, McDonald Observatory astronomers, hippies, and ranchers opposed to the pipeline. The Beards, along with Nelson, were some of the first to join.
“I’ve been willing to make a lot of sacrifices to be in a place that fits me,” Nelson says of the Big Bend region. “The beauty fills me up such that I don’t need much else. I hate to see the landscape disturbed.”
“Part of the reason people come visit us out here is because we’re different,” Spriggs says. “We don’t have pump jacks and stinky air. I would hate to see it become like Midland-Odessa, with all the drugs and grief.” Spriggs, who earns money by hosting deer hunters on his land, says hunters have already canceled future trips, fearing that the pipeline activity will disturb wildlife.
ETP has attempted to win over Big Bend residents by hosting town hall meetings and placing full-page ads in local newspapers. The company says it’s been able to work out surveying agreements with landowners covering more than 95 percent of the proposed route and asserts that this indicates broad support for the project. But Spriggs says his conversations with neighbors paint a different picture: some landowners who allowed their property to be surveyed, such as Nelson, still say they oppose the pipeline. Once ETP completes the survey process, it faces the far more difficult task of trying to pay off—or, if need be, sue—the landowners whose property their pipeline will need access to.
The BBCA is following a two-pronged strategy of opposition, trying to persuade landowners to say no to ETP and throwing up as many political and procedural obstacles as possible in order to delay the pipeline-building process. (Full disclosure: over the summer, I signed a BBCA petition at the Marfa farmers’ market.) Attitudes among the locals seem to be shifting in their favor. Brewster County judge Eleazar Cano, who called the pipeline “a done deal” in April, walked back his comments a week later. In June congressman Will Hurd spoke out against ETP’s “lack of transparency.” The Brewster County Groundwater Conservation District recently voted for a temporary moratorium on issuing water permits to ETP (or anyone else). Pipeline opponents also gained an unexpected boost that same month when a three-year-old pipeline ruptured and exploded near the small South Texas town of Cuero, shooting up flames that could be seen from twenty miles away. That pipeline was the same size as the one proposed for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline—and it was also operated by ETP. While no one was injured in the Cuero incident, YouTube videos of the explosion caused a stir in a place where fires are put out by volunteers.
The opposition to the pipeline has been centered in Marfa, Alpine, and Fort Davis. But farther south, in Presidio, there seems to be more support for the project. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says Brad Newton, the executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District. In this small town, residents rely on electricity or propane to heat their homes and cook their food. If the pipeline gets built, ETP says it will put in a tap, which would make it easier for another company to build the infrastructure to deliver natural gas to Presidio. This would bring a much-needed economic boost to one of the poorest counties in Texas, Newton says. How, he’s not exactly sure. “But I do have a sense of how many jobs are going to come without natural gas, and that’s zero,” he says. “It’s easy for Alpine and Fort Davis and Marfa to say no to something they already have.”
The supporters of the pipeline don’t have an impassioned grassroots movement behind them, but they do have one advantage: state law is largely on their side. As the state’s recent ban on fracking bans indicates, a fight against the oil and gas industry in Texas is going to be an uphill battle. Because of ETP’s common carrier status, if landowners refuse to cut a deal with the company, it has the right to exercise the power of eminent domain over their land with little recourse for appeal.
Which is why the BBCA’s biggest hope at this point rests with the federal government. The BBCA, the Sierra Club, and Presidio County (home to both Marfa and Presidio) have petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for an environmental impact study that could lead to federal oversight of the entire length of the pipeline. The BBCA is hoping that such a study would delay pipeline construction by as much as two years. ETP says that because the pipeline would exist within the state of Texas, it’s under the jurisdiction of the Texas Railroad Commission, and that federal oversight is required for only the small portion of the pipeline that crosses the Rio Grande. This puts some ranchers in the unusual position of asking the federal government to intervene on their behalf. The irony amuses Val Beard. “I’m a very conservative person—I’m not real pro–heavy government regulation,” she says. “But in this instance, the only meaningful regulation is federal.”
Meanwhile, outside Fort Stockton, lengths of pipe are already being stacked by the railroad tracks. Though ETP has made some concessions—including a provisional agreement to use a higher class of pipe for the part of the line that will pass closest to Alpine—it’s holding firm on its plans to begin construction early next year. “Everything is going as we hoped,” says ETP spokesperson Lisa Dillinger. “It’s business as usual, and we’re pleased that it’s moving forward as planned.”
But the opponents aren’t giving up. “I think a lot of landowners and ranchers accepted from the start that it was going to happen and thought we should just get all we can out of it,” Nelson says. “But I haven’t fallen into that mind-set myself. I always felt that there was a way to stop it.” Pipeline opponents are holding fast to the memory of past battles. Activists in the region successfully fought against a nuclear waste dump in Sierra Blanca in the nineties and foiled El Paso’s attempts to take the area’s scarce water resources a decade ago.
“It’s never been a done deal on environmental issues out here,” says Beard. “We were told, ‘You can’t fight El Paso.’ We were told, ‘You’ve got big people stacked against you.’ Well, we were able to prevail on that. We get told it’s a done deal every time in order to make us sit down and shut up. But we’re noisy people. We are not people to roll over.”