ALPINE, Texas — In late March, approximately 50 representatives from Energy Transfer, a Dallas-based energy company, stood smiling in a conference center in this small town, attempting to diffuse tensions with a community that has been largely resistant to a proposed pipeline planned for its backyard.
If completed as scheduled, the 143-mile Trans-Pecos Pipeline would transport natural gas from West Texas all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border. On the way, it would pass through the Big Bend region of Texas, a rural area beloved for its natural beauty by tourists and residents. The energy company is hoping landowners will agree to a permanent 50-foot easement along the pipeline’s route so it can serve northern Mexico; it says it will pay the owners a fair market price in return. But while some welcome the promised compensation, a vocal group of ranchers and landowners have vowed to resist the pipeline and its potential use of eminent domain to take over their land — especially because such laws may not even apply to a pipeline that would serve residents of another country.
In the process, they’ve formed an unexpected partnership with a local environmentalist group, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, or BBCA. While West Texas ranchers and environmentalists have rarely seen eye to eye, mostly because environmental regulations and endangered-species restrictions limit how ranchers can use their properties, they share a respect for the land. “We all agree that the land needs to be regarded a little more highly,” says Joel Nelson, manager of the Anchor working cattle ranch, which the pipeline will traverse.
This part of Texas, home to Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, is a popular tourist destination. “It’s kind of like the state’s backyard,” says David Keller, a BBCA steering committee member. Thanks to its famously dark night skies, the region is also home to the McDonald Observatory, the University of Texas’ astronomical-research facility. One common concern is that pipeline operations would disturb the area’s treasured peace and quiet. “This is the last great place in the state to enjoy quiet and dark skies,” says Florence Cox, whose home is near the pipeline route. “I moved to Alpine to get away from all that — and now they want to bring it here?”
A few early missteps from Energy Transfer didn’t endear the company to residents, either. Last month, a former local judge stumbled upon a surveying crew flagging the proposed pipeline route on her land, miles from the public road. “We are all under the impression that private property is private property. You go to talking about condemning something by eminent domain, you’ll get shot in this part of the country,” rancher Mary Luedeke told the Houston Chronicle.
At the meeting in Alpine, Energy Transfer seemed eager to smooth over that bad first impression. Lisa Dillinger, a media-relations representative, said, “If surveying crews were on people’s land without permission, that was definitely a mistake.”
But as they fielded questions from a largely skeptical audience about pipeline safety, habitat damage and light pollution, company representatives sported strained smiles. Project manager Rick Smith noted that current plans call for limited infrastructure along the route and therefore will have little impact on the landscape; however, he also acknowledged that if increased demand leads to increased flows, then additional infrastructure may be necessary later.
Energy Transfer representatives pointed out that some of the potential benefits of the pipeline include approximately $4.5 million in annual tax revenue to three rural counties, as well as the creation of between 400 and 600 temporary construction jobs. Most of the long-term operations and project-management jobs, however, would be filled by people brought in from outside the community, according to Dillinger.
While in some ways, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline is a rural, small-town issue, it is also rooted in shifts in international policy. When Mexico began deregulating its energy sector last year, a number of U.S. companies started to fill the perceived gap in the market. American natural-gas exports to Mexico are expected to more than double by 2018.
The fact that the Trans-Pecos Pipeline will serve residents of Mexico has contributed to some of the ill will against the project. “If it were supplying people in this state with fuel, I could better understand it,” said Nelson. “Using eminent domain to [take over land] to supply another nation — I got my reservations about that.” The pipeline’s international route will also play a part in any legal wrangling that Energy Transfer faces. Texas law allows eminent-domain seizures for utilities operating as “common carriers” serving the public good; the BBCA is exploring whether the pipeline still qualifies for common-carrier status if it is supplying residents of another country.
Not all response to the pipeline has been negative. Pipeline supporters point out that northern Mexico is primarily powered by plants that burn diesel, coal and wood; because natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel, they say, the new pipeline will help reduce pollution. The local website Big Bend Now noted that Presidio, a poor Texas community with close ties to Mexico, has seemed largely accepting of the pipeline plan. An open house there, similar to the one in Alpine, drew a far smaller, less argumentative crowd.
While Energy Transfer is continuing to survey land with the assumption that pipeline construction will begin on schedule in early 2016, the BBCA’s group of landowners, environmentalists and other opponents insist that the project is not a done deal. Several members recalled a similar David-and-Goliath fight against a proposed nuclear waste dump in nearby Sierra Blanca in the 1990s. While the environmentalists won that battle, the fight took a toll on the community. “The idea of starting up all over again is exhausting,” said Alpine resident Susan Curry.
A few days after the Alpine meeting, Joel Nelson sat in front of a half-built barn on the ranch he manages, which the pipeline will traverse. A few dozen cattle lounged in the grass nearby. As Nelson gazed out at the land, he talked about how he was surprised to find himself involved with the BBCA — “I’m not a joiner” — but found the issue too important to ignore. He planned to continue attending meetings, talking with his neighbors and doing everything he could, he said, to prevent the pipeline project from going forward. “There just need to be a few places that are left alone.”