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Environmental Assessment for Pipeline Border Crossing Gets Underway

Pipeline protesters gather in Alpine, TX. (Big Bend Conservation Alliance)

Federal regulators are preparing an environmental review of part of the planned Trans-Pecos Pipeline, the Permian Basin to Mexico natural gas project led by Dallas-based Energy Transfer.

The study will be used in deciding whether the project receives a government permit it needs to move forward.

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) announced it would perform an “environmental assessment” of about 2,000 feet of the pipeline project near the border – the only part that falls under federal jurisdiction.

The rest of the pipeline’s proposed 143-mile route is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission.

In its announcement, FERC said the assessment will be used “to determine whether the project is in the public interest.”

Regulators will also include "available descriptions" of the entire project in the environmental review. The Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA), an opposition group, calls that an unusual move on the part of the federal agency, and a direct response to citizen concerns about the pipeline.

Opponents say it’s an "early success" in their effort to stop the pipeline from being built.

"In this first step, FERC will complete an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed project as a whole,” the BBCA said in a press release.

But the commission says that’s not exactly the case.

“The notice doesn’t state that at all,” said commission spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen. “It’s a misunderstanding of FERC’s jurisdictional reach.”

Young-Allen says the agency will “mention” the parts of the pipeline that don’t fall under federal jurisdiction, but that it will not perform its own full assessment of the entire project.

“We’re not going to do an environmental review of that non-jurisdictional facility, we’ll just describe it, as we describe other things that are not within FERC’s jurisdiction,” she said.

To do that, the commission will use publicly available documents and descriptions of the full Trans-Pecos Pipeline from Energy Transfer, along with some confidential information the company recently provided the commission.

But Coyne Gibson, a volunteer with the BBCA, says the commission is responding to opponents' concerns, even if it's trying to minimize that appearance.

“There are subtle differences in the EA notice for this project, against all other EA notices,” he said.

He points to a paragraph in the notice from FERC that states plainly the commission will include those "available descriptions" of the parts of the pipeline outside its jurisdiction.

That kind of language is not present in a similar notice for the planned Roadrunner Pipeline - another West Texas natural gas project in the works.

But Young-Allen insists the agency includes descriptions of all "non-jurisdictional facilities" in finalized environmental reviews of any border crossing project, even if that’s not specifically called for in notices. She says it’s required under the EPA's decades-old National Environmental Policy Act.

“Anything that might be going on in a particular area our staff will be reviewing,” she said. “Other pipelines, bridges, new buildings. Just because they omitted that language doesn’t mean anything.”

And in fact, regulators did include such descriptions in an environmental review of a similar Energy Transfer pipeline in South Texas, even though that initial notice didn’t indicate they would look at the entire pipeline plan.

Whether this process is routine or not, one thing is clear: opponents have succeeded in getting their concerns in front of a wider audience, including the head of FERC.

Hundreds of comments about the Trans-Pecos Pipeline have already been sent to the commission – most of them opposing the project. Two Big Bend Counties and the BBCA have directly asked the commission to step in and regulate the entire length of the pipeline.

And when FERC Chairman Norman Bay told Congressman Will Hurd (R-23) the commission would ask the pipeline company for more information on the project, Bay said that was happening “in view of the commenters’ concerns.”

The EA will be open for public comment through August 24. Opponents are hoping this review process will lead to FERC requiring an “environmental impact statement” for the project – a more rigorous type of review called for if a project is “determined to significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

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