U.S. Congressman Will Hurd (TX-23) discussing the Trans Pecos Pipeline, Alpine TX, May 27, 2015 (KRTS / Tom Michael)
On Wednesday U.S. Congressman Will Hurd met with constituents in Alpine to hear their concerns about the planned Trans Pecos Pipeline. The line would connect producers in the Permian Basin with customers across the border in Mexico. Unlike other areas of the state, natural gas pipelines are rarely found in the Big Bend region. This has given rise to an unusual coalition of residents in opposition. And they wanted to know what their federal representative could do for them.
This sums up Congressman Hurd’s visit to Alpine. “This is a touchy subject, a sensitive subject. It’s a state issue.”
It’s a state issue. The feds don’t regulate this pipeline. That job belongs to the Railroad Commission of Texas. It was the safe harbor the Congressman returned to several times in face-to-face encounters with Big Bend residents. But some, like Roger Siglin, pointed out the federal steps involved.
The important issue I think is can they build a pipeline before they’ve got the presidential permit and have done the environmental policy act clearances.
Congressman Hurd told the crowd the permit requires the approval of the State Department: “The only federal piece to this is that they have to apply for a presidential permit. And that’s where the pipeline goes across the international border to Mexico.”
Energy Transfer, the company seeking to build the pipeline, said it would apply for that permit by June 1. And that deadline is arriving; this Monday.
Erik Zimmer, the city manager of Alpine, highlighted other areas of federal jurisdiction.
And I think the other piece on environmental studies and what the State Department will do as they work through some of the permitting issues. To me those were really good questions and I hope he puts some stars by those to ensure that they get the response that’s deserved.
Those issues of environmental impact were top of mind among residents, who lined up to ask direct questions to freshman GOP representative. Monica McBride, the chair of the Republican Party in Brewster County, described the unusual mix of those in opposition: “I’ve never seen so many hippies and ranchers in one room together.”
Rancher Joel Nelson is one of 300 Texas landowners along the proposed route. This afternoon his concerns were less about his property, but about how the pipeline would impact the entire region.
I’m concerned about the people on the outskirts of Alpine. I’m concerned about the amount of water that they are buying from the city of Alpine and the fact that they’re about to drill a well and that might dry up half the wells in the Sunny Glen residential area.
Alpine sells water in bulk to Pumpco Inc., which has been contracted to build the pipeline. And City Manager Zimmer hears concerns like these regularly.
Well I get requests from citizens. I wouldn’t necessarily call it pressure. I get requests not to sell it. I get requests from people to continue to sell it.
At the meeting, Congressman Hurd positioned himself as a messenger, willing to take questions from citizens back to Energy Transfer. He was last in Alpine in early April talking about the company with “deep concerns over a lack of transparency.” On Memorial Day he visited with officials from Energy Transfer and seemed to still have some of these concerns.
I think they recognize that the rollout or the beginning of this was rocky to say the least and they want to make sure that they’re being transparent and they got a-ways to go.
Most in this crowd were well-steeped in the details of the pipeline project. And people like Joel Nelson didn’t need Hurd to be a messenger for them.
Energy Transfer doesn’t need to answer any questions any longer because we don’t want the pipeline in our area to begin with. Anything they have to say is irrelevant.
Hurd said officials from the company wanted to return to Alpine on July 4th, but the crowd responded they didn’t want more back-and-forth. What they wanted was Hurd to help them stop the project altogether.
A woman in the crowd asked the Congressman: “Could we cut to the chase? Is there anything you can do in your position to stop this pipeline? Hurd heard. “Oh the thing I heard most was that people are upset. They do not support this project.”
Some brought up House Bill 40, which Governor Greg Abbott recently signed into law, ruling against local efforts to regulate industry. Again, the state is the regulatory body when it comes to oil and gas. When Republican Party chairperson McBride invited Hurd to speak, she knew the limits of his role as federal representative: “He doesn’t have the final word. But he is our voice and he can let everyone know how we feel about it.”
Throughout the meeting he tried to balance his support of economic freedoms of the industry with his belief in private property rights. Upsetting this balance, though, was the threat of eminent domain – the legal recourse that would allow the pipeline to run through private land, like that owned by Nelson.
I know practically every landowner. I know everyone of them in Brewster County that’s going to be crossed by the pipeline. We happen to be one of them.
Several questioned the pipeline company’s status as a public utility on the grounds it didn’t serve a local purpose in the Big Bend. City Manager Eric Zimmer.
There was a good question there about is this just gonna be a pipeline traversing and selling gas purely to Mexico. Claiming eminent domain has to constitute some level of local good.
Congressman Hurd hoped that land issues would be worked out before eminent domain would come into play: “I need to make sure that the appropriate state agencies are involved and that this doesn’t get to that point.”
And many in the crowd were already talking about fundraising for potential legal battles to come.