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Environmental groups continue fight over planned West Texas pipeline in federal appeals court

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
An anti-pipeline sign pictured near Van Horn, Texas in February 2024.

Environmental groups on Thursday continued their legal fight over plans for a major new natural gas pipeline through West Texas, asking a federal appeals court to reconsider a permit issued for the project earlier this year.

Oklahoma-based ONEOK announced plans last year for the Saguaro Connector Pipeline, a more than 150-mile, 48-inch diameter natural gas pipeline that would stretch from the Permian Basin to the U.S.-Mexico border in rural Hudspeth County. The project is designed to export natural gas from Texas to Mexico and then on to international markets, though Mexico’s plans have been held up recently by actions from the Biden administration.

A spokesperson for ONEOK said the company has not yet made a “final investment decision” on the West Texas pipeline.

In February, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a permit for the company to build a segment of the pipeline that would cross the southern border near a historic hot springs.

The Sierra Club and the advocacy group Public Citizen had already asked the regulatory commission to reconsider the move, but their petition was denied in April because of procedural rules, though the agency said at the time it planned to address the groups’ arguments “in a future order.”

In Thursday’s legal filing, the advocacy groups asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to weigh in on the matter.

In a statement, the Sierra Club said it intends to argue in court that the commission “improperly limited its review” to the pipeline’s border crossing segment and should have instead reviewed the project’s entire planned route through West Texas.

As it stands, most of the pipeline’s planned route would be regulated by the Railroad Commission of Texas, which primarily oversees pipeline safety and does not have authority on where companies build.

“The pipeline would threaten vulnerable communities, waterways, and cultural sites along its route,” the group said, adding that the pipeline would “lock us into decades of increased gas development and export, increased climate-warming emissions, and higher domestic gas prices.”

Spokespeople for ONEOK and the FERC declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The D.C. appeals court has previously rejected similar claims that Texas-to-Mexico pipelines should be subject to broader federal jurisdiction, notably in the case of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline built through the Big Bend region in 2017.

In a case brought by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, the court in 2018 sided with the FERC’s argument that the agency followed the law in only reviewing the pipeline’s border crossing segment in the federal permitting process, as the industry news outlet Natural Gas Intelligence reported at the time.

Still, Sierra Club attorney Doug Hayes said the group planned to raise different claims in the Saguaro Connector Pipeline case that the courts have not yet ruled on.

In an interview, Hayes said a ruling in the groups’ favor could have far-reaching implications for how cross-border pipelines are reviewed in the U.S.

“It’s not just a 1,000 foot section of the border,” he said. “They should consider the entire export project, that means looking at the pipeline’s route, the impacts to waterways, to communities, the risk of rupture from seismic activity and other impacts that are critical to the communities along the pipeline route.”

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