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Feds Release Environmental Assessment of Pipeline Border Crossing

Pipe for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline being staged near Fort Stockton in the spring of 2015 (John Jennings)

This story has been updated to include a comment from Energy Transfer, the pipeline company.

Correction (March 23, 2016): a previous version of this story - along with an earlier story - stated that federal regulators would decide on the border permit ("presidential permit") the Trans-Pecos Pipeline needs to cross underneath the Rio Grande by April 3. In fact, there is no set timeline for when commissioners with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will make a decision on that permit.

Rather, April 3 is the deadline for when,  according to the FERC, "agencies issuing federal authorizations" are required to "reach a final decision on a request for authorization" for the project. A FERC spokesperson said that statement does not mean that commissioners will make a final decision on the permit by that date, and a decision could come at any time.

Federal regulators have released an environmental assessment of the planned Trans-Pecos Pipeline’s border crossing section, a 1,093-feet stretch of the 143-mile pipeline that would carry natural gas into Mexico from the Permian Basin.

In the assessment, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) writes that if the border segment is built according to plans already laid out in federal filings by Energy Transfer (the pipeline company), any impacts would be "short-term" and "would not contribute meaningfully to cumulative impacts in the area."

The border crossing segment is the only part of the pipeline under federal jurisdiction. The rest of it is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission, though opponents with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) take issue with that and would like to see the entire line regulated by the federal government.

The no-impact finding comes despite hundreds of public comments filed by people who fear the pipeline will harm the region.

Coyne Gibson, a volunteer with the BBCA, said he’s not happy the commission didn’t mention any possible effects of the entire pipeline. He said he expects Energy Transfer will see this as a green light.

"My expectation is that very slowly, in the next 10-15 days, that we'll begin to see trenching activity in the Alpine area," he said.

Gibson said opponents are continuing their fight, and that he expects they'll end up in federal court with the FERC.

“This is not over until it’s over," he said.

Some pipeline opponents, including Gibson, believe the commission has violated its regulatory duties by not reviewing the possible “cumulative impacts” of the pipeline’s length outside the segment near the border.

Still, the fact that the commission didn't review those possible impacts in this assessment isn't a surprise; the commission explicitly said months ago that it would not review the entire pipeline plan.

“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,” FERC Spokesperson Tamara Young-Allen said in July.

"The possibility may be remote that we can stop it," Gibson said. "The higher likelihood is probably that we’re in court for a long time, and that post-facto we ‘win’ under the law, but the pipeline ends up in the ground. And as such, the citizens of this nation lose, but we’re going to continue to fight it until the legal channels are exhausted.”

Energy Transfer Spokesperson Lisa Dillinger said in an emailed statement the company is "pleased" with the assessment outcome.

"This issuance brings us one step closer to beginning construction on the border crossing facilities," Dillinger said.

"Regarding the 143-miles of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, we are in the process of finalizing our construction plans and anticipate starting construction in the coming months."

The commission is taking public comments on the assessment through February 3, while a final decision on the permit the pipeline needs to carry gas into Mexico could come at any time.

The assessment calls for regulators to be in charge of approving any changes to the construction plans for the pipeline's border crossing, if that border permit is granted.

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