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Proposed pipeline raising concerns for West Texas communities in its path

Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News

Of the 4,500 or so oil and gas pipelines that already crisscross Texas, this would be one of the very biggest: four feet in diameter, running from a West Texas gas collection hub, west by southwest until it crosses the Rio Grande, moving natural gas destined for places like Japan, China and Chile.

It’s so much natural gas that the stuff moving through this pipeline would be enough to power 30% of Texas electrical grid every day, year round.

But when state and federal officials signed off on this massive project, they left something out of the planning process, namely the towns and people along the pipeline’s path.

Russell Gold writes for Texas Monthly, and he recently raised a much larger and important question: when is a pipeline in the public interest? He joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Someone’s going to be making some money here. This would essentially move natural gas to a point in Mexico off the Baja California coast, I gather. Is that right?

Russell Gold: Yeah, absolutely. On the gulf of California. And it will be cooled and put onto tankers and sent over to China and Japan and other parts of the world to fuel power plants and petrochemical facilities.

Okay. Well, so is it clear who will be making the money out of this?

Well, sure. There’s a company in Houston called Mexico Pacific Limited. They are building this project, and what they’re going to do is they’re going to sell what’s called “capacity” to big companies you probably have heard of. I think Exxon has taken a bit of the capacity. I think Shell maybe also.

I mean, some of the big oil and gas companies will be the ones that are going to be buying this West Texas gas and reselling it across the Pacific Ocean.

So who signed off on this? I guess federal energy regulators have to give the green light. What about state officials?

Absolutely. The railroad commission has to approve. Well, I should put “approve” in quotes because the process for approving a pipeline in Texas – an intrastate pipeline – is pretty minimal.

When I asked the railroad commission about it, they said that Oneok – which is a Tulsa company that’s going to be building the pipeline on the U.S. side – all they really have to do is fill out a one-page permit and attach an electric map and basically say, “this is where the pipeline’s going to run.” The railroad commission said essentially it’s kind of a “check the box” routine. And in fact, it’s so perfunctory that Oneok forgot probably the most important bit of information, which is how many miles the pipeline would be, which is needed for, taxing purposes.

So about three weeks later, they realized their mistake, and they found the addendum which basically said, “oh, oops, we forgot to put in this basic piece of information. Here it is.” And a couple days later, the railroad commission approved it.

So, you know, both on the state and the federal side, there’s really not a huge amount of oversight that goes into something like this, which is amazing considering how much gas we’re talking about and how big an infrastructure project.

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I’m thinking, though, if they were to design a pipeline that ran straight through Dallas, maybe cut over into Austin and went out toward Houston, there would be a little bit more, I don’t know, consideration about public feedback in the process.

You know, probably. So we certainly have seen pipelines going from the Permian Basin, cutting across Texas down into Corpus and Houston. And those do tend to get more pushback. And part of that is because you’ve got more landowners.

You know, when you head from Fort Stockton west, you’ve got some very big ranches out there. You only have to deal with a small number of landowners. When you cut through the Hill Country, it gets a little trickier and there’s a little more pushback. So, yeah, I think you’re probably absolutely right about that.

But I guess the reason I’m even talking about this is because in your story for Texas Monthly, you talk about how this pipeline will run pretty close to Van Horn, and I’m sure other towns and cities and population areas out there in mostly sparsely-populated West Texas. But nonetheless, you have a problem with a pipe this size. This could be a major disaster.

Yeah, the pipeline is going to run about a mile or two south of downtown Van Horn – which most people, if they know it at all, it’s a stop on I-10 on the way out to El Paso.

You know, when I talk to locals there, one of the points they made is like, if there is a problem with the pipeline, if there’s a leak or an explosion, they just don’t have hospitals. They don’t have enough ambulances. They don’t have enough air lift. It would be a pretty significant problem.

Now, pipelines by and large are safe. But we do have, you know, there are incidents. And if you look back over about a decade, there have been about 9 or 10 deaths related to pipelines in Texas.

So it certainly does happen. And they’re very concerned. And, you know, the pipeline certainly could be routed further south. But for reasons I was unable to determine, Oneok decided to run it essentially right past Van Horn.

Why is it that you felt that this was an important question raised by the pipeline: “When is a pipeline in the public interest?” Does that have to do with the permitting process or what?

It has something to do with the permitting. But I think more generally, the point I wanted to raise was that when you build a big pipeline like this, this is something that’s going to impact us for 20 or 30 years or more.

I mean, there are pipelines that are still very active that were built after World War II. And so you build a giant pipeline like this, we’re essentially locking in for our children and grandchildren the impacts of this pipeline. Whether it’s running right past Van Horn and where you can build in Van Horn and if you feel safe in your house in Van Horn, but also it has to do with climate, and it also has to do with prices.

I mean, we’re living in an era right now where we’re increasingly concerned about the impacts of burning fossil fuels. So how will this pipeline impact that? And what about prices of our electricity? You know, we have the grid operator here in Texas, the lieutenant governor, they’re all telling the story about rising demand from data centers and Bitcoin and the need for more reliable gas plants. But we’re taking our gas and we’re exporting it. And what impact is that going to have on our prices?

These are all questions that if something is in the public interest and you’re allowed to build a pipeline from the U.S. to Mexico, across Texas, if it’s considered in the public interest, what does that mean? And what public are we serving here? You know, there are just important questions that really are not being asked.

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David Brown
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets. He is currently at work on Fire and Rain, a book that will track the lives and careers of The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young during the pivotal year of 1970.
Rhonda Fanning