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Dakota Pipeline Standoff Echoes In Texas: Mexico Still Counting On U.S. Natural Gas

This sign in Marfa, Texas is one of several seen in west Texas since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted construction on the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline in North Dakota. Both it and the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in Texas are being built by a consortium of companies led by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas. Mexico is paying for the Texas pipeline. (Lorne Matalon)

MARFA, Texas -- Opponents of a pipeline under construction in West Texas are pleased by the national attention garnered by  protest against the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline in North Dakota. Construction there has been at least temporarily halted following months of protest. But many people in West Texas are frustrated that it has taken a recent  ruling by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halting the work in North Dakota to bring national attention to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in Texas.

In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans and their allies attracted widespread attention from both the national  media and from Wall Street. The Sioux's reservation is  near Dakota Access. They said the pipeline could threaten their water. Months of protests and rallies have for now translated into a megaproject stopped as it is relatively close to completion.

Coincidentally, a Dec. 13  pipeline leakspilled significant amounts of oil into a creek approximately 150 miles from the Dakota Access protest encampment at Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The spill is the kind of development that opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline point to as an example of the kind of accident they fear.

Both the Dakota Access and Trans-Pecos pipelines are being built by consortiums led by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas. The company recently  announced a merger with Sunoco Logistics. Both companies are controlled by general partner  Energy Transfer Equity. President-elect Donald Trump has nominated former Texas governor Rick Perry to be the new Secretary of Energy. Perry is a  member of the Board of Directors of Energy Transfer Partners.

In North Dakota, the Army Corps of Engineers ruling has been welcomed by opponents of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in the Big Bend of Texas, so named for the arc the Rio Grande traverses in this part of the borderlands where the high desert cascades down to the river.

 The Trans-Pecos pipeline has been  paid for by Mexico. The route, the most direct and therefore least costly path from the natural gas laden Permian Basin of Texas to the border, was  selected by Mexico. It was then approved by the State of Texas. Mexico says it needs the natural gas to  power electricity plants.

Beginning in November 2014, many Big Bend ranchers and environmentalists, constituencies that don’t always see eye-to-eye in Texas, formed a coalition opposing the pipeline. But their outcry never reached the critical mass it did in North Dakota. That may be changing.

Near Marfa, Texas in the high Chihuahuan Desert, rancher Jeanne Simpson's land, in her family's custody since the 1800s, is now a construction site.

"You can see the scar across the land for miles," she said as she drove along the pipeline's route. "There it is, lurking along like this huge rocky serpent."

Energy Transfer seized her land using the power of eminent domain which Texas gave to the company. To date, Simpson and numerous others have not received compensation owed them under eminent domain law in Texas. Simpson is one in a group of landowners that was the target of legal action by Energy Transfer Partners-Trans-Pecos Pipeline, LLC.

In 2016, six landowners won a series of awards totaling in the millions of dollars, awarded after the pipeline company sued the landowners. A seventh case was adjudicated in favor of the company.

The landowners are part of a larger group of approximately 40 people or landholding entities contesting compensation offers and who have retained legal counsel. Energy Transfer Partners-Trans-Pecos Pipeline LLC said in an emailed reponse for this story that it is appealing the verdicts against it. The company also said in the same email exchange that that it has offered fair compensation to landowners. Landowners and others interviewed for this story claim otherwise.

But Simpson said the North Dakota ruling is welcome here.

"The Sioux have been treated poorly for a couple of centuries and whatever victory they can win, I'm in favor of that."

Since the Dakota ruling, Native Americans in Texas and their non-Native allies have gathered a number of times the perimeters of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline.

"You live on this earth! You need this just as much as we do!" exclaimed Native American Aaron Tellez to pipeline construction workers. Speaking of preserving land, which here includes some of the last legacy ranch land in the United States, he said "Let's take care of her!" The incident was captured on  video by independent photojournalist Jessica Lutz.

Energy Transfer has said it respects the right to peaceful protest. In North Dakota, any rerouting of the pipeline means Energy Transfer would have to get easements from property owners in other parts of North Dakota, who might say "not here," an echo of voices in Texas.

“They have no idea the devastation that we feel," said archaeologist David Keller. He is with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, a group of landowners, ranchers and area residents.

"The fact that it's taken this incredible clamor in North Dakota to get us on the radar has been frustrating though I must say that I'm very glad by what has transpired."

In the Texas case, a pipeline is bringing heavy construction to a rural area called the Big Bend.

“I thought there would be enough people out there that love the Big Bend and realized its majesty and its significance to Texas and the United States. And I thought, I guess foolishly, that all we’d have to do is sorta put it out there and say hey this area’s at risk. And the fact that that didn’t happen was very disconcerting," Keller said.

Both pipeline controversies are also on the radar in Mexico. Pipelines bringing in U.S. natural gas are lynchpins of the country's energy reform program, a plan that propses cleaner electricity generation through the use of natural gas rather thsan oil, a more stable supply of electricity and lower prices for businesses, manufacturers and consumers. The price and delivery of electricity are particularly irksome issues In Mexico. In 2017,  four U.S. natural gas pipelines begin delivering to Mexico. In the next three years, U.S. pipeline capacity into Mexico will  nearly double.

José Manuel Carrera heads business development at Pemex, Mexico's state-owned energy company. He did not comment specifically on any individual pipeline. But he said Mexico is counting on timely  delivery of U.S. natural gas.

"Construction of these pipelines is making available more natural gas - decreasing prices of power in Mexico."

Mexico appears nervous about the election of Donald Trump. But on this issue, the Mexican energy establishment is with him. The President-elect says once in office, the standoff in North Dakota will be resolved quickly. But despite pipeline regulation being a state matter in Texas, several pipeline opponents in Texas say Trump’s election likely means there’s no hope to stop construction here, though several people interviewed for this story suggest they are not deterred and feel emboldened by developments in North Dakota. They said they will try at the very least to keep their opposition to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in the public eye.

- Lorne Matalon