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A Pipeline in the Sand

A group of West Texans gird for battle against the oil and gas industry.

By September 2015Comments

Concerned landowners meet with Coyne Gibson (right), of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, on June 2, 2015.
Photograph by Jessica Lutz

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.”

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  • Karen Glammeyer Medcoff

    NEVER give up! my whole family here are on the VFD. we have seen the devastation the Fort Davis fire had. imagine that out in Sunny glenn with a pipe explosion! HELL TO THE NO! too many people would be injured or killed, as well as their livelihoods and homes. As for presidio, they don’t have the infrastructure to pipe gas to them. a valve is just a placating piece they want to put in to make this a done deal. And presidio has fallen hook line and sinker for the (no pun intended) pipe dream!

    • Karen Glammeyer Medcoff

      I would edit, but screw it. I rescind my statement. we have all QUIT the MVFD because of favoritism and a crooked officer on the force. screw them. they let go of the ONE person on the fd that had enough training to deal with bad wildland fires.

  • Coyne Gibson

    A few things to keep in mind: The company is not entitled to “common carrier” status (in this case, gas utility classification). This has yet to be challenged, or upheld by the Texas courts. The company is not entitled to gas utility status by checking a box on a Railroad Commission of Texas T-4 Operating Permit application.

    Repeated violations of the law (i.e. trespassing on private property) to obtain survey data, and then asking for forgiveness later is one of many examples of a private enterprise running rough-shod over the law.

    The use of Eminent Domain condemnation proceedings against an unwilling seller, by a for-profit company (not a government), who’s so far primary, and only disclosed customer, Comisión Federal de Electricidad (“CFE”), amount to unconstitutional taking, under both State, and Federal law – this is basically a foreign government, through a U.S. proxy, the pipeline company consortium, annexing the private property of United States citizens for the export of U.S. resources to a foreign entity.

  • Bishop Robert Paris

    Texas Monthly, you need to come into the real world once in a while and get out of your stuffy office, the fumes have gone to your heads. Let me point out a few things to you about your assessment of the Pipeline protest, I am not a rancher, nor am I any of the other groups you mention. I suppose the only category I do fit in is that I am a Texian, my roots here run back to the Republic of Texas. If you get out of your desk chair and come to the Big Bend you will see things here not found anywhere else in the country (and by the country I mean TEXAS) or for that matter in the World (that which is not Texas). The ecological balance here is fragile, and for that reason many here oppose the Pipeline, other opposition comes from those that believe the pipeline offers no real benefit to anyone other that Kelcy Warren, and his politician puppet Rick (anything for a buck) Perry. And Kelcy’s Mexican counterpart Carlos Slim. They will rake in the money and they do not care about the area, it’s people or anything. Cuarto recently had a 2 year old pipeline that exploded, it was also owned by Kelcy Warren, and of course he assured the people there his operations were safe. If he does things with such an eye to safety why does he cut corners and use sub-standard pipe? Perhaps if instead of sitting in your air conditioned office under the glare of the fluorescent lights and come out and meet the people here and see for yourself the unspoiled nature that is the Big Bend you might have a different view on the issue.; I would be glad to sit down over a meal here with you and discuss things and then go and take you and show you where their “survey” crews have damaged nature and have in fact committed trespass on properties (going on them without the consent of the landowners). You are getting the slick promotional material by ETP and not getting the big picture of the Big Bend. But then Kelcy Warren probably pays better than the poor folks whose livelihood is derived from the tourism that we get in this area because of its pristine beauty. Feel free to reach out to the people if you want the real story….unlike ETP we have nothing to hide. For them this is business as usual and for us it is preserving the land and the life we love.

    • GooeyGomer

      Sounded to me like the author was neither for or against the pipeline but merely trying to report on both sides of the story.

      • chupacabra007

        Well, at least that guy is against the pipeline.

  • GooeyGomer

    “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.”

    Yes, dear of course as a conservative you aren’t “pro-heavy government regulation” until it suits you and your needs, then you are all for it. Typical.

  • chupacabra007

    Glad to hear Joel Nelson weigh in on the side of sanity. He’s a great man and cowboy, and he’s right. That place is beautiful, and should be left undisturbed by the insane oil and gas industry. We can only hope with the imminent oil bust that this pipeline will be stopped before it mangles the last pristine place left in this great state. You can thank Greg Abbott for creating a law that doesn’t allow residents to control their own environments – the ban on fracking ban. What a dumb electorate for electing a big-business pandering governor who would roll over and sell his own mother to the oil industry to make a buck. Pure avarice.