Several weeks ago, Mae Ridgway heard a noise like a jet engine that startled her in the middle of the night. It was part of a scheduled maintenance event for the Trans-Pecos pipeline. (Sally Beauvais for Marfa Public Radio)
The hotly-contested Trans-Pecos Pipeline went into service in West Texas one year ago this month, amid protest from local opponents over private property disputes and environmental impacts. The aim of the Mexican-backed project was to export natural gas from the Permian Basin across the border. But one year in, Mexico is still not using any of the gas. And residents of the Big Bend have been feeling some of the pipeline’s impacts lately.
Mae Ridgway lives in a pink adobe house, on a quiet stretch of land along the Texas-Mexico border. A couple of weeks ago, she heard something weird in the middle of the night.
“When it woke me up, I thought, is that the refrigerator? Because the doors and windows were all closed,” says Ridgway.
It sounded like like a jet engine warming up on the runway. She walked outside, and realized where the noise was coming from: the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. It’s a 148-mile natural gas line running from Pecos County to the Rio Grande, just down the street from Ridgway’s house. What she heard was the sound of gas being vented from the pipeline – nearly 7 million pounds of it, over a 30 hour period that began that night.
Ridgway is familiar with the sound now. She’s lived here for 20 years, but the pipeline is new. And as she gets used to living down the street from it, she says the scary part is not knowing which noises are normal and which should be cause for alarm.
“When the noise starts up,” she says, “it’s like, okay, is somebody down there manning it?”
Pipeline operator Energy Transfer Partners affirmed that the February release was part of a scheduled inspection and maintenance event. But the volume of methane and other contaminants vented during the release exceeded the limit set by Texas environmental regulators at TCEQ by a huge margin – more than 7,000-fold. And there’s no penalty for it. The operators only have to report the release, which frustrates Coyne Gibson.
“That’s roughly 14 percent of the pipelines capacity,” Gibson says. “And it’s just, it’s vented into the atmosphere to no productive use.”
Gibson is with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, a local non-profit that’s suing federal regulators. He argues that emissions events like these are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to all of potential environmental impacts that regulators didn’t take seriously enough in the push to get the pipeline approved quickly.
“Here we are a year later, and not a single cubic foot of gas is flowing through that pipeline into Mexico. So where is the urgent need?” he asks.
In the last year, all auctions held for buyers to bid on capacity for the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in Mexico failed. Ross Wyeno, a Senior Energy Analyst with S&P Global Platts, says companies may be hesitant to get on board so far because construction in Mexico is behind schedule.
“Nobody wants capacity on a pipeline if there’s nobody to take the gas at the other end of it,” Wyeno says.
Without a complete network of pipelines and processing facilities to transport the gas through Mexico, buyers have been hesitant to commit. Mexican officials want American natural gas to fuel their newly deregulated energy market, and Permian Basin producers see this as a big opportunity. But without any buyers, for now, the gas mostly just sits in the pipeline.
There is one recipient of gas on the Texas side, though.
Rod Trevizo is the Assistant Manager at Biad Chili, on FM 170 outside of Presidio. The plant processes chilies to make crushed red pepper, the kind you put on your pizza. Trevizo says they had a successful first season this year. They employed about 50 local people from October to January.
“Without the pipeline, the gas, we wouldn’t have this business here, which means there wouldn’t be any employment for the local community,” he says.
The plant is hooked into the pipeline from Presidio’s Industrial Park, which started receiving natural gas last year. The city of Presidio relies on propane to fuel homes and businesses. It’s expensive and combustible, a big detractor to new development. Brad Newton, Executive Director of Presidio’s Municipal Development District, says it’s unlikely that natural gas from the pipeline will reach into town for municipal use anytime in the next few years. The cost of developing the infrastructure will be too great until the neighboring city of Ojinaga gets on board.
But Newton’s got big plans for the near future of Industrial Park. He’s working to bring a cement outfitter and a USDA inspection into their 400 acre lot on FM 170. Even Heineken is interested in the prospect of a distribution center there. According to Newton, all of these plans are possible regardless of the pipeline’s future in Mexico. And they’ll mean jobs and tax revenue for the city.
Mae Ridgway, whose pink adobe home is a stones throw from the end of the pipeline, says she’ll learn to live with the noise. But her neighbors are going to have to tolerate her, too.
“I’m not going to move because of the pipeline, and so they’re just gonna have to deal with me griping,” says Ridgway.
So far, Biad Chili is the single recipient of gas along the Trans-Pecos Pipeline’s route. Across the border in Mexico, the next auction for pipeline capacity has been postponed indefinitely.