A pipeline runs through it
By SASHA von OLDERSHAUSEN
PRESIDIO, ALPINE – The first two of three informational meetings held by Energy Transfer Partners regarding the Trans Pecos Pipeline drew entirely divergent crowds – a symbol of what is fast becoming a vastly divisive issue for Far West Texas residents.
Energy Transfer Partners held three meetings – in Presidio, Alpine and Fort Stockton – to provide information for the public, some of whom own land through which the slated pipeline is projected to run.
Energy Transfer Partners is one of three energy companies recently tasked by Mexico’s Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) to lead the pipeline project, which is slated to run from a gas hub near Coyanosa in Pecos County to Presidio, where it will connect to another pipeline across the border in Ojinaga and eventually provide natural gas into Mexico’s interior.
The proposed pipeline has spawned a strong opposition movement led by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, which in recent weeks has held its own meetings to garner information and spread the message to stop the pipeline. Those who oppose the pipeline are concerned about its environmental impact on an area that represents to many the final frontier of Texas’s wild land. Landowners who oppose the pipeline have concerns about the possible effects of having a pipeline run beneath their land.
But there are also those who believe that the pipeline could bring job opportunities and economic development to an area that is sorely lacking.
North vs. South
The divergent views that circumscribe the issue in many ways symbolize the socioeconomic and ideological differences that divide the region.
In the city of Presidio, the turnout of the meeting – held at the Presidio Activity Center’s gymnasium – was small, with almost as many attendees as there were representatives from Energy Transfer Partners.
Those in attendance included various local officials like Mayor John Ferguson, and the Presidio Municipal Development District’s executive director Brad Newton, both of whom are outspoken advocates for the pipeline project.
City council member Philip Aguilar, who was also in attendance, cited the possible job benefits for Presidio.
“If we got 20 jobs off this pipeline, that’s 20 jobs we don’t have right now,” Aguilar said. “There’s a lot of people in this town that are unemployed. There shouldn’t be that many.”
Chase Snodgrass, the Presidio County airports manager and a Presidio resident, said that the Presidio and Marfa airports have already seen an increase in use as a result of the pipeline project.
“One of the reasons we’ve been doing all the airport upgrades in Presidio and Marfa is for things like this,” Snodgrass said. “We now have new fuel systems, automated weather observation, runways and we’re ready to support this.”
Also present at the Presidio meeting was Presidio County Justice of the Peace David Beebe, who expressed disappointment at the reception the pipeline has received in Marfa, where he resides.
“I’m not supporting it,” Beebe said of the pipeline. “But I’m not opposed to it.”
“What bums me out about this whole thing with regard to the opposition is nobody wants anything. It’s so much easier to say no than it is to say yes,” he said.
For Beebe, who said he had grown up with a pipeline in his backyard in Houston, the issue also had broader political and socioeconomic implications.
“We’ve got a third world country right across the river that we don’t appreciate enough to allow a pipeline that isn’t even crossing through Marfa,” he said. “Few people care about Mexico in Marfa. They moved from places like Houston to get away from chemical plants, traffic, whatever it was. They move to Marfa and now that they’re there, they don’t want any of that stuff there.”
“I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon of all the predominantly white, economically privileged people in town,” he said adding, “Because that’s what this is – a first world problem.”
Indeed, the line between those who support the pipeline and those who oppose it carries heavier implications. The majority of those people who have attended the Big Bend Conservation Alliance’s meetings and who have expressed their opposition to the pipeline are residents of Marfa, Alpine and the surrounding environs.
In the meantime, those voices that have most vehemently supported the pipeline, and have cited it as a possible catalyst for economic development in the region are primarily from the south county region.
It is perhaps no surprise that the median household income of city of Presidio residents is a mere $21,420 – nearly half that of Alpine and Marfa, which have median household incomes of $40,154 and $42,656 respectively, according to 2013 census data.
Additionally, 94.1 percent of Presidio residents identify as Hispanic, many of whom have family members who live in Mexico, and frequently cross the international border. In the meantime, the total Hispanic population in Alpine is 51.2 percent, while in Marfa it is 69.9 percent, according to census data.
“Intrastate” vs. “Interstate”
But aside from the underlying sociopolitical details that divide these camps is the pipeline itself, the details of which remain mired in ambiguity and contradiction.
The pipeline meetings that occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday represented the first attempts by Energy Transfer Partners at providing transparency after the months of speculation and rumors that immediately followed the announcement of the proposed pipeline project.
Some 30 reps from Energy Transfer Partners – representing different elements of the pipeline project, from its construction, to right of way issues, to its environmental impact – were present at the meetings, which were held in an informal “open house” format, during which attendees could speak directly with those representatives.
In Alpine, more than 200 attendees packed into the Alpine Civic Center, where posters were set up with maps that delineated a preliminary outline of where the pipeline will run. Snacks and beverages were served on the sidelines, and ETP reps navigated the floor wearing white uniforms with tags that indicated their name, as well as their area of expertise.
Representatives from ETP also frequently acted as liaisons, and deferred questions to the appropriate experts. At times, these questions were deferred to multiple people.
Still, many of the broader questions pertaining to the pipeline remained seemingly unanswered.
Perhaps the most significant of these is the question of regulatory oversight of the project and its designation as an “intrastate” versus “interstate” pipeline.
Previously, the pipeline was believed to be an “interstate,” pipeline, meaning it would cross state lines – and in the case of the Trans Pecos Pipeline, cross the international border, as well – which meant that jurisdiction would fall under the U.S. Department of State.
Designating the pipeline an “interstate” pipeline, and thereby submitting it to federal regulations, would also mean the pipeline would be subject to a more demanding permitting process, including a presidential permit.
However, at the pipeline meeting, representatives claimed that the pipeline was in fact an “intrastate” pipeline – that is, it was considered to exist within state bounds, and thereby would fall under the authority of the Texas Railroad Commission.
Lisa Dillinger, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners said, “Texas Railroad Commission has authority over intrastate pipelines, which this pipeline is because it ends custody at the Rio Grande. In that sense it is within Texas.”
She added that only the 1,000-foot stretch of pipeline required for the border crossing would require a presidential permit, while the remaining 140 miles of pipeline traversing West Texas would require a T-4 form – the standard application for permit to operate a pipeline through Texas – via the Texas Railroad Commission. And from Mexico onward, the pipeline would be subject to Mexican custody.
But, according to the Texas Railroad Commission, this is not the case. The Big Bend Sentinel/ The International queried the Texas Railroad Commission about the pipeline, and attached an Energy Transfer Partners brochure, which explicitly stated that the Trans-Pecos Pipeline will be regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission.
In an April 8 e-mail, spokesperson for the Texas Railroad Commission Ramona Nye responded with the following: “The Railroad Commission’s pipeline safety jurisdiction applies only to intrastate pipelines that begin and end in Texas. The Energy Transfer flyer you provided me on this pipeline states the pipeline will terminate with an interconnect with a pipeline near Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico, which means this is an interstate and international pipeline under the pipeline safety authority of the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and the U.S. Department of State. In short, their flyer is incorrect, and we are contacting the company to make a correction.”
At the Tuesday meeting in Alpine, Tolley McCormick, an engineer representing Energy Transfer Partners, said that the pipeline company had already filed and been approved for its T-4 permit.
However, no record of this was available on the Texas Railroad Commission website. Additionally, no Texas Railroad Commission representative was present at the meeting.
Natural Gas for Presidio?
Another significant concern was the question of whether the pipeline would effectively provide city of Presidio residents with a source of natural gas, a point that proponents of the pipeline have cited as a possible benefit of the pipeline. At present, Presidio residents rely solely on propane.
In a previous interview, the executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District, Brad Newton said, “Presidio is the only city our size that uses propane gas. Alpine and Marfa and other communities have natural gas and take it for granted.”
However, while Energy Transfer Partners said they would provide a tap into the pipeline for the city of Presidio, representatives denied any involvement in creating distribution infrastructure to provide the natural gas into Presidio’s homes.
Rick Smith, the vice president of Energy Transfer, who is responsible for the overall execution of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline said, “We’re a good neighbor. We’re going to come through. We want to make sure that local governments have the chance for economic opportunity, as well and we reached out to the various counties to provide that opportunity – specifically to Presidio. We’re dealing with the local folks here. We’re going to put a tap in to the extent that they want to further that for economic development in the future.”
He added, “They would have to look with a local distribution company, similar to what they have in Marfa or up in Alpine. We’re not a local distribution company. We’re a pipeline company. We’ll put a tap in there for them.”
In reality, the pipeline company could potentially distribute natural gas to Presidio. However, it has no plans to do so.
And funding the infrastructure required for such a massive undertaking as replacing the city’s current gas system is a daunting task, and would likely bear a huge financial burden on a town that is already struggling.
The big picture
While the pipeline meetings seemed to assuage some of the passions that have been exhibited in previous weeks – particularly at meetings catered to the opposition – the inconsistencies in the narrative made it apparent that the information provided by Energy Transfer Partners is best taken with a grain of salt.
Coyne Gibson, a former engineer within the oil and gas industry, who has recently teamed up with The Big Bend Conservation Alliance in its campaign to stop the pipeline, was present at both Presidio and Alpine meetings.
He said, “We’re playing ball with experts here. If you’re the pipeline company, you want this to go through, and you’re going to do your best to control the flow of information. You’re going to diffuse the energy of the people that might oppose you. And you’re going to conduct sessions just like this that’s orchestrated by bright, sharp people engaging you directly.”
He added, “But they’re going to prevent the same people hearing the same answer to the same question.”
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