When the protesters finally dispersed, I found Alpine archaeologist David Keller standing next to his hunter green Tacoma, a cowboy hat covering his long, ruffled hair, and a bandana on his arm offering a splash of baby blue amid beige and khaki. Quiet and self-possessed, Keller seemed slightly out of place in the noisy crowd, but against the backdrop of the overcast mountains, he fit right in.
In September, Keller witnessed something that constitutes a tragedy for any archaeologist: bulldozers tearing through what he calls a “prehistoric kitchen” dating back at least 7,000 years. The site, he said, had a continuous series of artifacts passing from the late archaic period to the present, including rare relics from Indians, Spanish explorers, and 1880s cowboys. Though the company involved claims to have adjusted construction to avoid disrupting the site, Keller said the demolished area was pending status as a State Archaeological Landmark, Texas’ highest archaeological standing. Now its chances of receiving protection are close to zero.
“We don’t even know what they destroyed,” Keller said, his words filled with a muted anger I heard in many voices that morning. “There are a couple artifacts that I just picked up out of the easement right before the bulldozers came through, and that was just a couple things I saved.”
The amorphous “they” Keller referred to is a company many have become familiar with over the last year, an oil and gas pipeline developer that has recently gained notoriety for its handling of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Galvanizing at least 280 outraged Native American tribes in what the New York Times called “the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century,” Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) has been widely criticized for ignoring the input of tribes and communities affected by DAPL, for unleashing dogs and mace on activists, and for other heavy-handed practices. The demonstrations led the Obama administration to temporarily halt construction in September to consider the pipeline’s impact.
What many don’t realize, however, is that the same Texas-based company has also been battling local communities in the Big Bend area for two years. Despite vehement opposition, ETP has succeeded in initiating construction of its Trans-Pecos Pipeline (TPPL), a 148-mile conduit through which 1.4 billion cubic feet of West Texas’ natural gas will flow to Mexico, with little benefit to Texas communities.
“The only benefit here is that we’re going to get some really rich people a lot richer,” Keller said.
As co-founder of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA), one of several organizations created to protect the region, Keller can point to a number of serious costs. Watching the company acquire ranch land through eminent domain condemnation, grind through prehistoric sites, and do little to address residents’ environmental and safety concerns, protesters say the TPPL is tearing open the heart of a region that, until now, has resisted the intractable thrust of Texas’ oil and gas industry.
Rivard Report Photo Editor Scott Ball and I decided to see if a DAPL doppelgänger might be fermenting, unnoticed, in the Last Texas Frontier. On our six-hour drive from San Antonio, I noted the sulfurous fetor and heaving oil drills that define so much of the state’s landscape with a familiar, uneasy complaisance: It may not have been a pretty sight, but flowing from those oil wells was something all of us need – and the lifeblood of the Texas economy.
As we turned southward off Interstate 10 toward Alpine, the landscape quickly changed. Glowing red in the setting sun, towering boulders burst like wrinkled fists through a velvety cloak of pale-green grasses, low shrubs, and leathery succulents. Through it, patterns of white and yellow wildflowers wove through the greens and browns like ocean currents, while solitary Texas madrone trees craned to the open sky atop desert mountains. Soon they made stolid silhouettes against a dense fabric of stars, which irradiated the night sky like nothing else I’ve seen in the state of Texas.
I was already beginning to understand why, to so many residents, and almost 100 major celebrities, the TPPL was more than just another piece of infrastructure, like the power lines and roads already tying the area’s sparse network of towns together. On Friday, Sept. 30, Alyce Santoro explained that perspective to a crowd of approximately 200 protesters gathered for a three-mile march to a pipeline construction site outside of Alpine.
“What we have come to learn over the course of these two years is that, in the state of Texas, there is no legal recourse, no due process, no ethical standard that protects landowners, municipalities, Native peoples, cultural relics, endangered species, or fragile ecosystems against the will of Big Oil and Gas,” said Santoro, cofounder of Defend Big Bend, which has joined forces with the BBCA, the Sierra Club, and a broad coalition of Native American tribes.
Protesters attending the march ranged from peace-loving environmentalists sporting blue bandanas to right-wing property rights defenders wearing cowboy hats and well-worn boots. Most noticeable among the protesters were representatives from Native American tribes stretching from Santa Fe to San Antonio.
Speeches and prayers likened the pipeline’s builder to the archetypal colonizer.
“This company doesn’t care about our future generations,” Frankie Orona, a leader in the the American Indian Movement of Central Texas (AIM-CT), said of the Dallas-based company. “They care about their investors, and that’s all they care about. Well this issue affects all of us, all communities… It isn’t specific to one demographic or one people or one tribe or one nation.”
Wearing black leather vests, black bandanas, and a fierce look in their eyes, members of AIM-CT, coming straight from DAPL protests in Standing Rock, N.D., imbued the demonstration with a spiritual aura, as steady drumming and the smoke of burning sage bundles wafted through the crowd.
“We defend (the land) as a child defends its mother,” said a teary-eyed Oscar Rodriguez, tribal administrator with the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. “We cannot help but see that woven into it and by it is our past and future. … If the Lipan cultural sites are destroyed, and the spirit is dug out with bulldozers and excavators, the land will be inert to all. It will not mother anybody anymore.”
Protesters Raise Safety Concerns
DAPL is designed to transport oil from North Dakota’s Bakkan fields while the TPPL will export natural gas from West Texas’ Permian Basin, but protests for both have a similar tone: ETP has paid little heed to nearby communities and their safety and environmental concerns.
Avinash Rangra, Alpine’s mayor during the height of the controversy, said ETP never consulted the three affected cities – Alpine, Marfa, and Presidio – nor did the company’s representatives come to the many well-attended hearings Rangra held regarding the issue. A retired professor at Sul Ross State University who has called Alpine home since 1967, Rangra is deeply disturbed by ETP’s “display of raw power.”
“They had their own PR at Sul Ross, and right away the audience was told no questions would be entertained about the accident that happened,” Rangra told me.
Rangra was referring to ETP’s massive pipeline explosion in Cuero, Texas, where flames leapt 100 feet into the air and melted a half-mile stretch of road. Though the June 2015 accident occurred out of reach of any houses, Rangra, like many Alpine residents, fear they could be less fortunate.
Some point to a 2000 explosion in which an almost hour-long fire incinerated twelve campers and nearly $1 million worth of property due to failures in El Paso Natural Gas Company’s corrosion control program.
“It’s not if it explodes, it’s when it explodes,” Alpine local Sara Mele told me as the march progressed out of the town center along West Holland Road.
A pilates instructor who identified herself as one of the people living “within the blast zone” of the pipeline, Mele added, “It’s a permanent scar.” Even though the pipeline will eventually be buried underground, like many in the community, Mele believes the effects on the land will not go away.
As we wrapped around a dust-swept storage lot used by one of ETP’s pipeline construction contractors, Theron Francis and Stuart Crane of the Sierra Club pointed across an open field speckled with yellow dogweed blossoms. There, two parallel mounds of dirt cut through the landscape, hiding the 42-inch pipeline. Past it, a few dozen houses in the Sunny Glen neighborhood would be cut off from emergency assistance, they said, if anything happened to the section of pipeline crossing under its only entrance, Highway 1703.
“When you grow to love this place and you see the beauty, it’s devastating to see what this pipeline does,” Crane remarked.
The TPPL public relations team declined several requests for an interview, but ETP spokesperson Lisa Dillinger did provide written responses to a list of questions. Though Dillinger would not give information on the company’s record of leaks or explosions, she stated that “pipelines are the safest form of transportation for natural gas.”
She referenced the company’s safety brochure, which roughly outlines some safety precautions but omits any information on possible risks.
Beyond the pipeline itself, many fear the limitless industrialization they believe it heralds. Defend Big Bend organizer Lori Glover said the pipeline could be the “beginning of the end of this pristine area.”
She pointed out that Mexico’s recently reformed energy sector and Apache Corporation’s September discovery of 1.1 to 2.7 billion barrels of oil equivalent are the recipe for an oil and gas boom that could transform Big Bend into Anywhere Texas.
Described by the Apache’s Chief Executive John Christmann IV as “a giant onion that is going to take us years to unveil and peel back,” the Alpine High oil field has raised a number of local worries of its own. Residents of Balmorhea, Texas, who depend on the San Solomon Springs’ famous crystal water and the 160,000 tourists drawn to it annually, fear Apache’s predicted 2,000-3,000 new hydraulic fracturing wells could contaminate the aquifer. Also under threat could be the region’s 28,000-square-mile dark-sky reserve, which allows the McDonald Observatory to operate one of the world’s largest telescopes.
None of this, though, speaks to what is arguably the most serious consequence of investing in new natural gas infrastructure: climate change. Fossil fuel emissions are causing the greatest environmental catastrophe in millions of years, a crisis scientists widely agree promises massive, permanent human and ecological destruction if not quickly and dramatically combatted. If we can’t muster the courage to take this truth seriously, said Chief William Huff of the Tsalagiyi Nvdagi tribe, future generations will have no choice but to live with a greatly diminished planet.
“This is my youngest son,” Huff said, his voice outraged, almost desperate. “What are his kids and his grandkids going to have?”
Agendas Converge: Environmentalism and Private Property Rights
To many, safety and environmental concerns pale beside the abuse of a fundamental Texas value: private property rights.
Ironically, in Texas, seizing land couldn’t be easier for pipeline companies. By filing for a T4 permit with the industry’s regulatory body, the Railroad Commission of Texas, pipelines become “public utilities” endowed by Texas law with a swift and seamless land condemnation process. But this is seen as more of a formality. When it comes to regulating pipelines, the Commission’s website states that pipeline companies are under no requirement to seek or receive “either a determination that there is a need for the pipeline capacity or prior approval to construct a pipeline.”
In addition, the “Commission does not have any authority over a common carrier pipeline’s exercise of its statutory right of eminent domain.”
According to BBCA member Coyne Gibson, ETP has used this unregulated right to sue any landowners who rejected its initial land purchasing offers, forcing them to forfeit their land, with damages adjudicated by a special commission. If either party disputes the commission’s decision, a civil court battle ensues, during which time ETP begins construction while the property owner’s compensation sits out of reach. This costly and lopsided process, Gibson argued, is why most landowners end up submitting to ETP’s terms, even in the face of significant losses.
“The landowners (are) stuck,” Gibson explained. “They’re suffering the cost of damage to fences, having to relocate cattle, loss of hunting leases, you know, one thing after another, but they can’t collect any of the money, because the matter’s still in court. But all the while, the pipeline company’s got their land.”
ETP claims it uses condemnation as a last resort and gives land owners a fair deal, but the company refused to provide evidence to support these claims.
Dillinger would not disclose how many properties ETP seized. “We do not provide specifics related to individual negotiations with landowners. Landowners may choose to, but we do not. I can tell you that the majority of easements were obtained through voluntary agreements.
“Easement compensation is based on the appraised fair market value, the existing land use (city, non-city, developed, non-developed) and overall market values for the specific area of the state. Possible impacts to the property during construction are also considered when applicable (crop loss, hunting impacts, etc.). We try to work closely with each landowner to factor specific elements into the easement agreement.”
Dillinger again declined to demonstrate how these calculations played out in real life in the company’s negotiations.
With a clear advantage in any prospective legal battle, a multibillion dollar corporation like ETP has little incentive to actually provide a fair price to small-scale ranchers, Gibson argued. In some cases, Gibson said, ETP offered one-tenth, one-twentieth, or even one-thirtieth the value landowners expected.
“When people finally understand it, they are typically horrified,” he said. “Because it is so wrong and unfair that you can’t put words to it.”
Unlike most residents in that hilly backcountry, Gibson knows the ins and outs of the business well. Tracing his family’s involvement in oil and gas back four generations, he spent a decade as an engineer in the industry until he could no longer tolerate what he called its “complete disregard for the environment, the socioeconomic impact on a community, (and) public safety.”
Having followed the industry more closely ever since, Gibson pointed out the irony that, though categorized as a “public utility,” ETP is hardly shy about the fact that it designed the TPPL to export natural gas to Mexico’s electricity commission, the Comisión Federal de Electricidad. The company claims this will reduce greenhouse emissions by replacing Mexico’s coal plants with a cleaner-burning fuel.
The TPPL is only one of more than 20 projects planned to export U.S. natural gas to Mexico, Gibson explained. By his calculations, this will produce a supply excess of up to 56 times Mexico’s predicted capacity, making the only rational goal to pump it into global markets. So, while politicians and energy companies preach the need for increased extraction in the name of energy independence, ETP is seizing American land to send our national resources across the border under false pretenses to sustainability.
As far as local benefits go, when asked how much of the TPPL’s gas would serve Texas residents, ETP spokesperson Dillinger pointed to “five delivery points (taps) along the route in Texas for local communities to take advantage of the economic development opportunities.” ETP also estimates it will pay $7.1 million total in ad valorem taxes to Pecos, Brewster, and Presidio counties, a figure calculated by third-party appraisal firms. Officials in both Marfa and Presidio cited these revenues as a huge boost to local governments. Dillinger also mentioned vague benefits like “fostering economic vitality,” “encouraging development,” and “financially benefit(ing) local communities via the use of good(s) and services.”
ETP did not support these economic claims with details or a financial impact study. Of the three municipalities within range of the TPPL, only Presidio, a town of 5,106, has plans to use the taps.
According to Presidio Municipal Development District Executive Director Brad Newton, the pipeline represents a huge opportunity for the area, which until now has relied on propane for heating. He anticipates the more robust heating source will attract businesses to the poor area, outweighing costs to landowners. The specifics of this benefit, though, remained unclear.
“Natural gas is going to put us on a level playing field with our surrounding communities,” Newton told me. “We’re not looking to bring in environmentally unfriendly businesses. We’re looking to bring something that creates jobs, that’s sustainable.”
Like many others, Newton believes once buried, the pipeline will intrude on the landscape far less than roads and power lines – which are already accepted as necessary evils.
But former mayor Rangra says these limited public benefits hardly justify such a massive, export-based project. He pointed out that ETP made no effort to inform the municipalities of its plans, originally forcing him to rely on local media and speculation to piece together his understanding of the project.
“It was at best misinformation, intentional or otherwise, when they told the Railroad Commission it was going to be a utility company,” he explained. “There are only three cities along this (148)-mile long pipeline – Alpine, Marfa, and Presidio – and none of them were asked if they wanted to buy gas from them. To serve these communities, you don’t need a 42-inch line.”
Friends in High Places
To Pam Luther, an attorney who drove seven hours from Dallas to join the solidarity march, ETP is simply an extension of “Big Government” she, like many Republicans, reviles.
“A Democrat should support the protest because the pipeline will ruin the environment,” Luther said over chants and songs. “And a conservative should support the protest because this is an example of government control taking over private rights (and) the government allowing a private company to come through without the support of the people who live here.”
Subsuming Big Government and Big Oil and Gas into one category may not be so far-fetched. It could, in fact, explain what Gibson called the “loopholes in the law” that have led to a “tilted legal and regulatory landscape.”
For example, ETP’s PAC, CEO Kelcy Warren, and President Marshall “Mackie” McCrea have contributed a combined $2.7 million to Texas state candidates and PACs since 2010, according to data provided by Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), an Austin nonprofit that tracks Texas campaign finance.
This includes $307,615 donated to the state’s three Railroad Commissioners, all of whom have significant ties to the industry.
“Ostensibly the Railroad Commission is supposed to regulate industries like the pipeline…” Gibson told me. “Isn’t there a conflict of interest that so much money gets funneled to these elected officials by the very people they’re supposed to regulate?”
ETP’s PAC and executives also contributed $899,803 to Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign, which caused concerns about conflicts of interest when Abbott appointed Warren to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.
Though it can boast 71,000 miles of gas and oil pipelines around the nation, ETP’s contributions hardly capture the sheer quantity of money exchanging hands between the industry and politicians. In 2013, TPJ estimates the state’s “Energy and Natural Resources clients took out 1,364 lobby contracts worth up to $67 million, or 19% of all lobby spending” in Texas. They also reported that during the 2014 election cycle, oil and gas PACs spent $12.2 million on Texas campaigns.
Nationally, the industry dedicates $130-150 million annually to lobbying federal politicians, while in the past three election cycles campaign contributions have averaged about $75 million per cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
With local governments often more vulnerable to corruption and less closely monitored by campaign finance and lobbying watchdogs, the influence of oil and gas on the local level is hard to determine. Anecdotal examples, however, raise red flags. For instance, attorney Christopher Sandefur moved his legal practice to Alpine at roughly the same time ETP entered the region, representing the company in lawsuits against the landowners as late as February 2016. In September, Sandefur was appointed to be the City’s municipal judge. Though Sandefur told local media his lack of personal ties to Alpine mean “there would be no conflicts of interests or favors awarded,” there was no mention of his alleged interest in the TPPL, the city’s most controversial issue. Sandefur has not responded to numerous requests for comment.
“We feel that we don’t live in a democracy,” Francis told me as we turned down Highway 1703. “That’s the case for all Texans.”
The pipeline was finally before us. A 125-foot swath of dirt stretched out on both sides, rising in clouds around the bulldozers churning through it. Protesters shook and stamped on the fences. A gloom unusual for the area had settled in the sky, while, over nearby mountains, fog wafted through ribbons of sunlight.
Their sense of loss finally hit home with me. To some, the land itself was sacred. To others, sacrosanct American values of democracy, self-determination, and private property had been violated.
But to all, one uncomfortable question seemed to sit on the tip of their tongues: How does a motley band of country people in a forgotten corner of Texas defend itself against an industry that has, like the 2.6 million miles of pipelines webbed through the American countryside, woven itself into the very heart of our political system?
‘I Don’t Know What to Do but Fight or Leave, and I Don’t Want to Leave’
That question has plagued David Keller for two years. After watching ETP disregard his community and the land and history it holds so dearly, he was visibly demoralized.
“I came out here to escape. But what’s happened is, we’re being assaulted,” he said.
Describing himself as a quiet guy who prefers to be left alone with nature, Keller never imagined himself getting involved in activism. But at this point, he doesn’t feel like he has much of a choice.
“I don’t know what else to do but fight or leave, and I don’t want to leave,” he told me. “Where am I going to go? You can’t run forever. They’re always right around the corner – Industry, industrialization. Industrialization of the Big Bend would be the saddest thing.”
Like so many others, the prospect of losing Big Bend keeps Keller passionate. With increased national attention on issues like it, he hopes his bipartisan coalition might help turn the tides in a system increasingly favorable toward oil and gas.
He knows it’s a tall order. To begin, it would mean removing legal loopholes that hand the power of eminent domain to corporations without serving the public good. It would also require a reworking of the legal and political infrastructure that has provided fertile ground for such loopholes to develop. Lawmakers will need the courage to pass policies that prevent regulators from financial or professional conflicts of interests. And at some point, we will have to sincerely examine our campaign finance and lobbying systems, Keller said, adding that liberal or conservative, we can all recognize that these systems are anti-democratic and at odds with the values and concerns of most Americans.
The oil and gas industries have played a crucial role in this state’s economic history. But Texas prides itself on more than an industry’s pragmatic and transient interests. The land, the people who nurture it, and the values those people cherish are what have always made this state special.
With the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, all of these values appear in question. At the very least, the pipeline calls for our state to undergo some self-examination. Let’s hope when future generations visit the Last Texas Frontier, there’s still a frontier to see.