© 2024 Marfa Public Radio
A 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Lobby Hours: Monday - Friday 10 AM to Noon & 1 PM to 4 PM
For general inquiries: (432) 729-4578
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Federal regulators approve permit for planned Saguaro Connector Pipeline through West Texas

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
The pipeline would run near the small town of Van Horn, along Interstate 10 in West Texas.

Federal regulators on Thursday approved a permit for a planned cross-border pipeline that would carry natural gas from West Texas to Mexico, part of a budding industry effort to ship gas to growing markets in Asia.

Oklahoma-based ONEOK announced plans for the Saguaro Connector Pipeline in early 2023, saying the 155-mile long, 48-inch diameter pipeline would carry natural gas from the Permian Basin to the border in rural Hudspeth County, where the project would link up with planned export facilities on Mexico’s west coast.

The project, much like the Trans-Pecos Pipeline before it, has raised concerns among environmental groups, landowners and concerned residents, particularly in the tiny town of Van Horn along the pipeline’s planned route.

The pipeline company has still not committed to building the project, and its executives have signaled they are waiting for Mexico’s export facility to proceed, as the trade publication Natural Gas Intelligence has reported.

“We are now reviewing the accompanying order and look forward to the opportunity to potentially move ahead with this project, including a potential final investment decision sometime in the future,” ONEOK spokesperson Annell Morrow said in a statement.

Critics, including the Sierra Club, had specifically raised concerns about the pipeline’s contributions to climate change and urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take a closer look at the project’s potential environmental impacts.

The commission dismissed those and other concerns in its permit approval for the segment of the pipeline that would cross the border, writing that critics had failed to overcome a federal legal standard that generally allows such pipelines to move forward if they are found to be “consistent with the public interest.”

The permit decision was not unexpected even by its critics, who have long complained that the FERC “rubber stamps” pipeline applications.

“This approval was expected by all of us watching,” Bill Addington, a Sierra Blanca resident and local activist, said in a statement released by a coalition of groups opposed to the project. “It’s common knowledge FERC works for big oil and gas, not the people.”

Advocacy group Public Citizen, which has also opposed the project, said in a statement it would ask the commission to reconsider its decision.

“The commission’s decision ignores the harm record methane gas exports have on raising Americans’ energy bills and exacerbating climate change, all to prioritize feeding more gas to China,” Tyson Slocum, an energy issues advocate with the group, said in a statement.

FERC’s permit approval included a partial dissent from one commissioner, Allison Clements, who disagreed with the notion that the agency was “incapable of assessing” the impacts of the pipeline’s greenhouse gas emissions. But her dissent was not a win for opponents, as Clements wrote that the commission should have instead “simply found that the project’s minor GHG emissions are insignificant” under federal standards.

In recent years, pipeline industry critics have repeatedly urged the FERC to take a more sweeping regulatory view of projects like the Saguaro Connector Pipeline that carry gas from Texas to Mexico.

Historically, with pipelines that stretch from Texas to Mexico, the commission has only considered small segments that cross the Rio Grande as under its jurisdiction, leaving the majority of a pipeline’s regulation to the state. In the case of the Saguaro Connector project, that amounts to a less than 40-acre plot of land south of Sierra Blanca near the historic Indian Hot Springs site. Some of the opponents who filed formal comments to FERC about the project raised concerns about the pipeline’s impacts on that site and other historic Native American sites in the area.

A map of the pipeline’s border crossing area in Hudspeth County as depicted in a federal environment analysis.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
A map of the pipeline’s border crossing area in Hudspeth County as depicted in a federal environment analysis.

The commission rejected the various jurisdictional complaints in its permit order Thursday, writing in part that opponents had failed to prove the pipeline would carry anything other than “Texas-sourced gas” and therefore failed to show broader federal jurisdiction was warranted.

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