Wooden stakes marking the natural gas line’s path to Mexico symbolize a disruption of idyllic beauty the region is cherished for, as wary locals prepare to fight against environmental damage and new economic realities
Thorny mesquite branches scratched the sides of James Spriggs’ battered old Chevrolet truck as he drove the rutted pathway from his house towards other, less natural, spiky objects.
On his 4,400-acre ranch there are deer, quail, jackrabbits, roadrunners, dragonflies and even the occasional eagle or mountain lion. And there are wooden stakes indicating the route of a natural gas pipeline that will slice through his property against his wishes.
“They stand out, kind of out of the ordinary, when the light’s correct on them,” he said, picking up a stake that lay flat beneath a small tree. Since their discovery, Spriggs and others have made it their mission to protest a proposal that would be routine almost anywhere else in the state.
Many moved to Big Bend because it is spiritually and physically unlike much of the rest of Texas, which long ago kowtowed to the boom-and-bust thrust of Big Oil, with all its possibilities and problems.
Some 426,000 miles of pipelines already crisscross Texas, acting as the cardiovascular system of the state’s thriving economy. Only one large area is untouched, but that is about to change – unless a diverse group of citizens can prevail in an underdog fight against billionaires, anemic regulators and new economic realities.
While national attention has focused on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to the Gulf coast, activists in this remote region have mobilised to battle a planned development 600 miles west of Houston that is routed through some of the state’s most spectacular scenery.
Here, remoteness lends a sense of timelessness. The nearest commercial airport is a three-hour drive. Fewer than 10,000 people live in Brewster County, which is far bigger than the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and almost all of them in the town of Alpine. If you have seen the final moments of the 2014 film Boyhood, you know what the mountainous Chihuahuan desert landscape looks like. The best-known place is Marfa, the improbable artsy enclave beloved of New York feature writers.
Spriggs’ ranch is south of Marfa near a US border patrol checkpoint. He is a mild-mannered man in a tough environment. “I keep a shovel handy. Shovel is the main weapon against rattlesnakes,” the 69-year-old widower said. He wore a checkered shirt, a wide-brimmed hat and jeans with a leather Lone Star cellphone holder fixed to his belt.
Spriggs has a tendency for understatement. Like the time in 2011 when he was gored by a raging bull: “He explained to me he wasn’t happy.” As for the pipeline: “It doesn’t necessarily come out and bite you right off the bat – it takes time for it to sink in, what it all could mean,” he said. “When they say it’s the last frontier – it’s awful close to that for the US.”
Marfa and Alpine are in the path of the most direct route between Presidio, the only major legal border crossing point for hundreds of miles in either direction, and the oil-patch cities of Midland and Odessa, a three-hour drive north.
‘We have the ability to use eminent domain’
The oil industry may be squirming because of the low price of crude, but natural gas pipelines are sprouting as a response to soaring demand in Mexico and legal changes there in 2014 that make it easier for foreign exporters to sell the fruits of the Texas fracking boom. Mexico sees American gas as a cheap way of generating electricity that will also help it cut emissions as it modifies oil-burning power plants to run on gas.
The Trans-Pecos pipeline is a partnership between companies controlled by billionaires: Mexico’s Carlos Slim, reportedly the world’s second-richest man, and Kelcy Warren, head of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which in February welcomed former Texas governor and failed Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry to its board of directors.
They hope that construction will start in the first quarter of next year and in 2017 the 42-inch pipeline will transport 1.4bn cubic feet of natural gas per day from a processing plant near Fort Stockton to the border, where the line will go under the Rio Grande and connect with Mexican infrastructure.
Spriggs said that surveyors came to his ranch without permission and that on another occasion he was curtly informed that if he would not grant access, they would ultimately compel it anyway.
“They just said ‘we want to cross two parcels of land, sign this and send it back. We have the ability to use eminent domain.’ That was real short. Wasn’t sweet at all, but it was real short,” he said.
Vicki Granado, an Energy Transfer spokesperson, said that going on Spriggs’ land was a mistake after a neighbour’s property was surveyed. “Due to further research of unclear county records regarding an old property transaction that shifted property lines, it was determined that some of the land surveyed was in fact owned by Mr Spriggs,” she said. “We never re-entered the property after the second survey to remove the stakes. There was never any intention to survey land on which we did not have permission.”
Eminent domain is the ability of the state to take private property for public use, which can come into play when pipeline companies say they are “common carriers” who will make their product available to others. “When it’s a private party looking to make a few more dollars, it’s kind of questionable as far as I can tell,” Spriggs said.
Sitting at a picnic table high in the Davis mountains, Coyne Gibson agreed. “If I wanted to cut your hair, I would have to have a license from the state of Texas and a permit. But If I want to build a 42-inch high-pressure natural gas pipeline, 143 miles long, I don’t need one,” he said.
Since March this year, a sworn promise and supporting documents are enough to satisfy the state oil and gas regulator, the Texas Railroad Commission. Energy Transfer applied in February, when the requirement to claim common-carrier status was even less stringent: checking a box on a one-page form which the commission would take at face value. Under a new rule, a company’s failure to comply with reporting requirements may result in a $1,000 fine – four times less than the possible penalty under Texas law for adults who give alcohol to minors.
Disputes are left to the courts. According to the commission’s website: “In Texas, pipelines are not required to be permitted before being built. There is no statutory or regulatory requirement that a pipeline operator seek or receive from the Railroad Commission either a determination that there is a need for the pipeline capacity or prior approval to construct a pipeline and related facilities. Additionally, the Railroad Commission does not determine or confer common carrier status for pipelines.”
Nor under Texas regulations is there a minimum distance that a gas pipeline must be built from a property. All this worries Gibson, an engineer who lives and works at the McDonald Observatory. Reached by a twisty, hill-hugging road, telescopes housed in futuristic-looking domes use the area’s dark skies to explore the universe.
Earlier this year, Gibson directed his gaze from the stars to the ground.
“I began to be concerned about what was going to be the impact on the region and started doing some research on my own,” he said, speaking in a personal capacity as a member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, one of the groups leading the resistance to the pipeline.
“I think they honestly thought that we were all a bunch of dumb hicks and that nobody would notice and it would just get done like all their other projects. I can pretty much assure you that they had no idea they would meet this kind of opposition here,” he said.
Gibson is hardly a stereotypical tree-hugger: in the 1980s he worked for an oil and gas infrastructure company. “I’ve seen firsthand with my own hand what these kinds of projects do to the environment they pass through. There’s a short-term impact related to the construction and a longer term set of impacts related to their operation that just really, frankly aren’t appropriate for this region,” he said.
“If you traverse this region like I have, you see that it’s largely pristine and intact, the development that’s out here is largely compatible with what this region can sustain … I’m not opposed to oil and gas, don’t get me wrong. It’s a question of routing. There are other places to take this thing. If it really is that imperative economically or otherwise to get that gas to Mexico, just go a different way. Avoid this region.”
There is support in the low-income, pragmatic border town of Presidio among those who hope it will provide economic benefits. But anti-pipeline campaigners question whether a pipeline built for Mexico will help ordinary Texans in the long run. Then there are the environmental anxieties.
The pipeline will be underground and Granado said that Energy Transfer does “not anticipate any environmental impact in the long term”. But locals fear that as well as creating short-term disruption, it will irreparably scar the fragile ground, use millions of gallons of water in a drought-hit region and risk lives because the small-scale emergency services would be overwhelmed by a disaster such as a wildfire.
Accidents happen. In June, an Energy Transfer pipeline about 90 miles from San Antonio ruptured and exploded for unknown reasons in what one witness called a “huge ball of fire”.
Last best hope
Despite political efforts to forge closer economic ties, a 2010 joint statement from President Obama and his former Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, said they supported attempts to preserve and protect the Big Bend region, which they called “one of the largest and most significant ecological complexes in North America”.
Opponents’ best hope for delaying or stopping the pipeline may now rest with the federal government, which is responsible for regulating the 1,093ft stretch that crosses the border. Even though almost all the gas is destined for Mexico, the pipeline is classified as “intrastate”, with all but that tiny distance coming under state jurisdiction as a result. After it received hundreds of public comments, this month the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asked the pipeline company for more details about the possible environmental impacts.
Suzanne Bailey knows exactly when it started affecting her: 29 March, when trucks from one of the project’s contractors started rolling into an empty plot of land behind her house near the intended pipeline route in Alpine.
“It was on my radar but it had not gotten close enough, or hadn’t gotten the attention to spur me to activity,” the retiree said, sitting in her living room as a digger churned earth a few feet from her kitchen, seemingly preparing the ground for offices or equipment storage. “I got busy once this happened.” One day, she said, the industrial activity “shook this house so hard I thought it might fall down. Frankly I thought I might lose my mind”.
As well as the noise, she is worried about water usage, safety, land damage and the state’s supine attitude towards the energy industry. “They are exempt from an awful lot of the regulations that the rest of us have to live with,” she said. “They always say [the industrial impact] ‘smells and sounds like money to me’. But people come here to get away from that.”
Big Bend Conservation Alliance’s members are already preparing for a long campaign, convinced that once one pipeline is built, more will follow – no different to the rest of Texas. “It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” Gibson said.
This article titled “Texas pipeline plans rouse protest and pride from residents of lush Big Bend” was written by Tom Dart in Big Bend, Texas, for theguardian.com on Saturday 10th October 2015 11.00 UTC