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Pipeline Company Wants Feds To Deny Opponents' Request For More Oversight

A map of intrastate pipelines in Texas. Opponents say the Trans-Pecos Pipeline would amount to a de-facto international project. (U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Energy Transfer, the company behind the planned Trans-Pecos Pipeline, has asked the federal government to deny requests from some Big Bend area opponents to have the project governed under stricter federal regulations.

Opponents, led by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA), are hoping to have the entire length of the project subject to federal environmental reviews. Presidio and Brewster Counties, along with elected officials in El Paso County, have asked for that expansion as well.

“What we really are trying to accomplish here is to federalize the project,” said Coyne Gibson with the BBCA.

Gibson feels the pipeline company is trying to skirt around the intent of the decades-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a wide-reaching law that lays out the government’s responsibility on a variety of infrastructure and land management issues.

As it stands, federal regulations only apply to the pipeline's border-crossing section.

In a motion filed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last week (July 15), the pipeline company asks the commission to keep it that way.

Trans-Pecos Pipeline, LLC., - Energy Transfer’s subsidiary company for the project - asks the commission to conclude that federal jurisdiction “applies only to the Presidio Crossing Project facilities,” and not the rest of the pipeline’s planned length, known as the “Upstream Facilities.”

“The Commission also should conclude that it is not required to undertake a full review of the Upstream Facilities,” the filing says.

The company argues that since the pipeline is designated an “intrastate” pipeline – meaning officially that it only operates in Texas - federal oversight of the entire length shouldn’t apply.

Opponents have challenged the intrastate designation. They say despite the legal nuances, the plan amounts to a de-facto international pipeline, since it’s being financed by the Mexican government to supply Mexican power plants.

The gas would be delivered halfway across the U.S.-Mexico border, where it would then change custody to a company on the Mexican side.

David Keller, the head of the opposition group, described Energy Transfer’s latest move as “just another blunder.”

“Another in an endless chain of blunders that they’ve made,” he said.

While opponents are set on stopping the Trans-Pecos Pipeline altogether, Gibson says the multiple requests for federal intervention on the pipeline could, at the very least, slow the plan down.

“FERC is going to have to take a much harder look at this, and they’re going to have to consider their responsibility as a federal agency,” he said, “and then make that decision about whether this thing ought to be looked at as a larger project. That’s really all we’re asking.”

The odds that FERC would agree to do that are slim. These kind of cross-border pipeline projects aren’t uncommon in Texas, and the commission gave the green light to a similar Energy Transfer pipeline in South Texas last year.

Still, Gibson said the BBCA is reviewing case law that might give the opposition’s request for federal intervention a legal standing.

If FERC did agree to broaden its jurisdiction on the plan, it would represent a sizable shift in how pipelines are regulated on the state and federal level. Gibson says the opposition’s efforts on that issue – even if unsuccessful – could stretch beyond this particular pipeline.

“In this case, we’re drawing a lot of attention to it,” he said. “The visibility is going to potentially affect not just [Energy Transfer], but other pipeline companies that are trying to do the same thing.”

A FERC spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday about how the commission will respond to the pipeline company’s filing.

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