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Cano Backtracks on “Done Deal” Comment, Pipeline Opposition Begins Fundraising

Energy Transfer V.P. of Engineering Rick Smith gives an update on the Trans Pecos Pipeline to Brewster County Commissioners on April 28, 2015 (Lorne Matalon)

A week after saying the planned Trans Pecos Pipeline looks to be a "done deal," Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano says he's not so sure that's the case anymore.

“Well, it’s not over ‘til it’s over,” Cano said at a recent county commissioners meeting after hearing an update on the project from Energy Transfer, the company behind the pipeline. Cano has said he wants to negotiate with the company over the pipeline's proximity to Alpine.

“The energy folks that were in here, they did provide some hope of some local control that we can still exercise,” Cano said after the meeting.

Just a week before, he’d indicated he was hesitant to come out too strongly against the pipeline, for fear of the pipeline company not being open to negotiations.

For the record, Judge Cano says he's neither for nor against the proposed pipeline.

In his update to commissioners on Tuesday, Energy Transfer's V.P. of Engineering Rick Smith said the pipeline route won’t be finalized for at least a month.

The company has said before the route will likely be fine-tuned on a daily basis, as negotiations with landowners continue.

Cano said after speaking with Smith, he has other reasons to believe the pipeline’s fate might not be sealed, chief among them: Energy Transfer has not yet received a presidential permit from the federal government to connect the pipeline to one on the Mexican side.

“Once it gets to the river, that presidential blessing basically has to come,” Cano said, “and when he was asked ‘has that already been obtained?’ what I heard was ‘no.’”

“I guess that gives me a little bit of hope that perhaps my comment was a little premature,” Cano concluded.

The State Department says the company has not yet applied for a presidential permit.

Meanwhile, opponents are gearing up for a publicity campaign against the pipeline, and a possible legal fight, should Energy Transfer decide to pursue eminent domain to condemn land for the project.

“There are several attorneys that are landowners that are directly affected by this,” said Liz Sibley, an Alpine resident who spoke against the pipeline at the commissioners meeting. “They’re networking hugely all over the state.”

The Washington, D.C.-based environmental activist group Earthworks has made the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) an affiliate of the national organization to give the local opposition group 501-c-3 non profit status, and to help local opponents raise money.

“That will be spent on publicity and legal counsel,” Sibley said. “We’re getting organized.”

David Keller, with the BBCA, said the national group will be providing web support and consulting advice to the local volunteer group.

Energy Transfer maintains it’s rarely had to resort to eminent domain proceedings in the past, but exact numbers are hard to come by.

Spokesperson Vicki Granado said the company doesn’t track how often all of its corporate entities – five in all - have resorted to legal action to gain access to land for pipeline projects. But, she said, for projects from Energy Transfer Partners alone – the entity behind the Trans Pecos Pipeline – the company has reached deals with landowners more than 90% of the time.

Smith could not provide specifics when previously asked.

The company has been willing to take landowners in Michigan to court over a proposed pipeline in that state.

The Ann Arbor News reported in early April that Energy Transfer had filed 17 lawsuits against landowners who refused access to survey crews planning a route for the planned 710-mile Rover Pipeline. Tensions between the company and Michigan landowners flared in October, when one man confronted a survey crew with a shotgun, while others repeatedly refused the company access to their land.

The law surrounding eminent domain in Texas has been tied up in the courts for years now.

In 2011, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that landowners have the right to challenge a company's claim to eminent domain in court. Since then, the court's ruling in the "Denbury" case has been challenged multiple times.

Beyond a few revisions, the state's highest court has yet to reverse its ruling on the case, but the pipeline company that has continually fought that ruling is yet again in the process of asking the Texas Supreme Court to review its decision.

Lorne Matalon contributed reporting from Alpine.

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