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Opposition to Trans-Pecos Pipeline Gets Underway in the Big Bend

Big Bend area residents hold an opposition-led community meeting on the Trans Pecos Pipeline in Alpine, TX. (Travis Bubenik / KRTS)

The demand for natural gas in Mexico is growing, and companies in Texas are looking to cash in.

Dallas-based Energy Transfer’s one of them. It’s looking to build two pipelines in West Texas that would carry natural gas from the Permian Basin to the Mexican border.

One of the lines would run through the pretty much industry-free Big Bend region, and that’s got some West Texans worried their remote corner of state could be changed forever.

It’s a full house at a community meeting in Alpine about the Trans Pecos Pipeline.

Some are listening through the windows, braving the West Texas wind to hear what’s happening inside.

“We’re all here tonight because of a 42-inch gas pipeline that threatens our way of life, our land, and also, our sensibilities on how business ought to be done,” says Mark Glover with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

It’s a small group that’s trying to bring people from across political and cultural aisles together against the pipeline.

They’re trying to build coalition of landowners, ranchers and progressive environmentalists who see any kind of industry activity here as an existential threat.

Opponents have a lot of questions: what if it leaks, or even explodes? Won’t the small towns here be filled with temporary construction workers? And if that happens, won’t crime go up like it has in Midland-Odessa?

Energy Transfer’s scheduled a series of public meetings later this month to hear people out, but some aren’t waiting to find out more about the company’s plan.

One of them is Coyne Gibson, Observing Support Manager at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis.

He wanted to know just where exactly this pipeline’s going to run. It’s hard to tell from the state-level maps the company’s provided.

Gibson’s a tech guy, so he made his own using coordinate data from a request for proposals documentfrom Mexico’s federal electricity commission - the Comisión Federal de Electricidad.

Vicki Granado, with Energy Transfer’s PR firm Granado Communications, says that route’s still being fine-tuned as land surveys and negotiations with landowners continue.

“We’re doing surveys on a daily basis, which actually means the route may be tweaked on a daily basis,” she says.

Gibson’s worried that lights along the pipeline could brighten up the night skies, which are some of the darkest in the country here.

“From an official university policy, that’s all I care about,” he says.

Observatory Superintendent Craig Nance says it’s too early to say if there even would be an impact, but he’s looking into it. Energy Transfer says it will follow the region’s dark sky ordinances.

Still, Gibson, like others, also just doesn’t want to see this pristine landscape torn up with digging and trenching, even if it’s only temporary.

“As a resident of the region, however, I would rather this not be here.”

And as a volunteer firefighter, he’s prepared for the worst.

“If there’s a leak, an explosion, an accident, we have enough problems as it is in this region without having to fight a fire on a high-pressure gas pipeline,” he says. “We’re just not equipped for that kind of thing at all.”

The company’s hinted they’d be willing to chip in money or resources to local fire departments if it would make them feel safer.

That kind of reassurance doesn’t surprise Bill Addington. He’s well-known around these parts for leading the charge to fight off a nuclear waste dump that was planned for nearby Hudspeth County in the 1990’s.

“The oil and gas industry has a lot of money at their disposal,” he says, “but again, it’s not about how much money, it’s about who’s in the right and who has the truth.”

“Being in the right and having the truth gives a special power that money can’t buy, and if these people in this room tonight - if they believe that, and are willing to take it into the long haul and have tenacity - they will beat this.”

For West Texans like Addington, that "truth" is that this pipeline’s simply a bad fit for the Big Bend.

But they’re not the only ones deciding the pipeline’s fate.

Officials in the small border city of Presidio, which would be located near the pipeline’s end, say they’d love to have access to natural gas. They hope this pipeline could make that happen for the first time ever.

And the company could win over some hearts with its case that giving Mexico access to cleaner-burning natural gas could cut down on haze over Big Bend National Park from Mexico’s coal plants.

For now, emotions against the plan are strong and outspoken. One woman at the meeting said simply “this pipeline will kill Alpine.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.