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Brewster County Judge on Trans-Pecos Pipeline: “I Do Think It’s a Done Deal"

A man looks at a map of the proposed route for the Trans Pecos Pipeline at an open house hosted by Energy Transfer on April 21, 2015. (Jessica Lutz)

A series of “open house” meetings on the planned Trans Pecos Pipeline have been underway in Presidio, Alpine and Fort Stockton this week.

Hosted by Energy Transfer – the Dallas-based company behind the pipeline – the open houses featured maps, graphics and tables where the public could talk with company managers and contractors.

The 143-mile natural gas pipeline would run through parts of Pecos, Brewster and Presidio Counties – from near Coyanosa, TX in the Permian Basin to Presidio, TX on the Mexican border.

At Tuesday’s open house in Alpine, Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano said while he understands some area residents’ concerns over a perceived lack of transparency from the company, it looks to him like the pipeline’s construction is inevitable.

“I don’t want to say it’s a done deal, but I do think it’s a done deal, to be honest with you,” Cano said.

“With that in mind, my strategy is to be able to stay in the discussion and stay at the table. I hesitate to take a very strong position against it, because I don’t want to be ostracized for that position by the folks that are making the decisions.”

23rd District Congressman Will Hurd said earlier this month he had expressed to Energy Transfer his “deep concerns over a lack of transparency,” after hearing from constituents who voiced their own “significant” concerns.

Since area residents started receiving form letters informing them of Energy Transfer’s plans to build through their land, Cano has heard the outcry as well.

“I think a lot of them feel blindsided by the way it happened,” he said. “If they had come out a year ago or 18 months ago, and gave us more lead-in time to what’s happening, I think it would’ve been better received.”

Cano said he’s brought that issue to the attention of Energy Transfer representatives, who he’s met with in recent weeks.

“We want to be good neighbors,” said Rick Smith, Energy Transfer’s Vice President of Engineering. “We’re going to continue to work with them to make sure they get all the facts and answer every one of their questions.”

But for people opposed to the plan, the idea of Energy Transfer as a “good neighbor” just doesn’t add up.

“I think they’re moving forward and they don’t really care what any of us have to think,” Alpine resident Jeffrey Bennett said at Tuesday’s open house. He’s among others concerned about the pipeline’s proximity to Alpine.

“If that thing gets ruptured, that’s gonna hurt people, including maybe me and my wife,” he said. “I don’t know why they have to pick the biggest community in the Trans Pecos to go right through.”

The company says it's aiming to build the line along existing railroads and electricity infrastructure, to minimize the impact on the land. Bennett said while he understands the economics of picking the easiest route, it’s still a “poor choice.”

“If it’s truly an economic engine like they say it is, they can eat the cost of another 50 miles or 75 miles,” he said.

The exact details of the route are still being fine-tuned. An Energy Transfer spokesperson previously said the route will likely shift on a day-by-day basis as negotiations with landowners continue.

But if those negotiations turn sour, it will ultimately be the company drawing the map.

The Trans Pecos Pipeline is now designated a "gas utility" - a form of "common carrier" pipeline. In Texas, that means the company can pursue eminent domain and condemn land for the project. The Texas Railroad Commission explains:

Common carrier pipelines are those that transport oil, oil products, gas, carbon dioxide, salt brine, sand, clay, liquefied minerals or other mineral solutions. For example, a pipeline transporting crude oil could be a common carrier, and, as such, would have the right of eminent domain.

A 'common carrier' pipeline transporting natural gas for others is a 'public utility,' commonly referred to as a 'gas utility,' and would also have the power of eminent domain.

The company maintains the eminent domain option is a “very last resort,” and not one it frequently has to use. But when pressed about statistics, with respect to how often the company's used eminent domain across its 36,000 miles of pipeline operated in the U.S., Smith declined to be specific.

“In the majority of the cases, we’re able to settle and come to fair and equitable resolution, without pursuing legal proceedings relative to securing a pipeline easement,” Smith said.

The Big Bend Conservation Alliance is pushing to stop the pipeline altogether. In advance of Tuesday’s meeting, the group distributed a laundry list of questions it had for the company, outlining concerns about everything from the pipeline’s potential environmental impact to the effect an itinerant workforce could have on communities in the Big Bend.

While Judge Cano feels the pipeline will inevitably be built, he does see potential for negotiating at least the pipeline’s route.

“I think that is one of those areas where we can possibly negotiate, and almost send it out further away from the population than what it currently is planned on being,” he said.

Energy Transfer says it hopes to begin construction on the pipeline by the end of 2015 or early 2016, and expects to have it finished and operating by early 2017.

This post has been updated to reflect a clarification: in its approved operating permit from the Texas Railroad Commission, the Trans Pecos Pipeline is designated a "gas utility" - aka "public utility" - a form of "common carrier" pipeline in Texas. More on the distinction here.

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