One San Antonio landowners's view of the pristine Sabinal Valley along the crude oil pipeline route originally planned by Houston-based Enterprise Products. Credit: Courtesy / Ken Halliday

The now-defunct plan by Houston-based Enterprise Products Company to build a crude oil pipeline from Midland County to Wilson County crossing the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone was a really bad idea.

Enterprise is a midstream natural gas and crude oil pipeline company listed as 89 on the Fortune 500 list.

An oil spill would have put the water supply for San Antonio and the region at risk, threatened endangered species, and violated a regional habitat management plan that took six years to negotiate.

Such an oil spill was not an irrational fear. Enterprise is responsible for four of the worst 20 oil spills in the United States since 2010, three in Texas, and one in Oklahoma. 

News of the proposed pipeline was first reported on Sept. 25 by Brendan Gibbons, the Rivard Report‘s environment and energy reporter, who first learned about the project from outraged Hill Country landowners. The owners, some of whom live and work in San Antonio, were clueless about the company’s planned pipeline until they received legal notices in the mail informing them their land was subject to survey by Enterprise and seizure by eminent domain.

Even officials at the Edwards Aquifer Authority were unaware of the Enterprise pipeline project prior to Gibbons’ article. That says volumes about the lack of State oversight of an industry that operates with few restrictions. 

In this instance, some very influential landowners, including at least one oil and gas executive who lives in Midland, led to a highly unusual decision by Enterprise to send a team of executives to the Hill Country for a private, face-to-face meeting with landowners on Thursday, Oct. 3. The Enterprise team came prepared to abandon the proposed pipeline route over the recharge zone and even shared a map showing an alternative route.

The Rivard Report is seeking a copy of that map to publish.

It was a rare win for citizens standing up to the powerful oil and gas industry. Given the state’s hands-off, anti-regulatory culture, this week’s news should be celebrated cautiously as a welcome exception to the rule. Others in the Hill Country do not have the same influence. 

Enterprise never publicly disclosed plans to route the crude oil pipeline over some of the state’s most sensitive recharge features and unspoiled landscape. Company executives initially refused to respond to information and interview requests. That lack of transparency is ironic.

Houston billionaire Randa Duncan Williams, chairwoman of Enterprise Products, purchased Texas Monthly in June amid pledges of editorial independence. No mention of the pipeline has appeared there or in other Texas print media.

The pipeline would have crossed land within the 156,000 acres that San Antonio taxpayers have spent $255 million over the last 19 years protecting from development, according to the City’s latest figures. Construction of the pipeline would have threatened that public investment and likely led to years of expensive litigation.

Families with ranches or land holdings along the path of the proposed pipeline received a letter from Enterprise seeking access to their property to conduct surveys and laying out the one-sided terms allowing Enterprise to exercise eminent domain over private property.

The letter included a “Landowner’s Bill of Rights,” a toothless document that acknowledges a landowner’s right to hire lawyers and sue if they do not like surrendering private property to a for-profit company at an arbitrary price. Such payments seldom equal the real loss.

A crude oil pipeline along such a scenic and undeveloped Hill Country corridor would have caused property values to plummet.

The original planned route for the pipeline traversed through hilly terrain and South to Utopia.

Imagine a Hill Country ranch as a big wedding cake. The pipeline company comes in proposing to make a 2-inch linear cut through the center of the cake equal to, say, 5 percent of the total cake mass. Most of the cake, they correctly point out, will be just like it was before the taking of that thin slice. The owner is thus offered 5 percent of the market value of the ranch as fair compensation. Does anyone really think the remaining 95 percent of the bisected cake would hold its original appeal and value?

Landowners aside, the larger issue remains the public interest in preserving the Edwards Aquifer’s pristine water supply and not allowing an energy company seeking the least expensive route from oilfield to refinery to endanger that supply.

The City of San Antonio arguably has more at stake than any other Texas city since its drinking water supply comes from the Edwards Aquifer and because taxpayers have invested such large sums to protect the recharge zone.

In this instance, Enterprise realized it would surely lose in the court of public opinion and behind closed doors in Austin, so it sensibly withdrew its ill-advised route. The broader legal challenges for property owners everywhere facing the powerful oil and gas industry remain considerable.

At the state level, the oil and gas lobby has over the decades convinced lawmakers to eliminate significant regulatory authority. The Texas Railroad Commission acts more as an industry representative than in the interest of citizens. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality also has no authority over the routing of pipelines.

Neither agency made any effort to challenge Enterprise’s proposed pipeline route or take into account the company’s prior record of pipeline breaks and spills, or to make the public aware of the project.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority, whose motto is “Manage, Enhance, Protect,” also lacks regulatory authority over pipeline companies, even if the EAA believes transporting crude oil over the recharge zone presents a clear and present threat.

At the federal level, there is a solid record of rulings in support of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and a six-year process by federal, state, and local officials that led to the 2012 creation of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan protecting the region’s springs and aquatic species. Any oil spill could threaten both, so U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service normally might oppose such a pipeline.

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ample authority to intervene anytime there is a threat to the water supply in the 50 states.

Federal agencies under the Trump administration, however, have steadily reduced regulatory activity at the federal level to allow states and industry to operate free of oversight.

Cities could have filed a lawsuit and argued that the proposed Enterprise pipeline would have been part of a multistate network of connecting pipelines reaching from New Mexico to offshore export along the Texas Coast. That would make the pipeline subject to regulation under the Interstate Commerce Act. Enterprise, however, has not submitted its plans for federal review.

The proposed pipeline route was to come up the Sabinal Valley and then up and through the hills.

Landowners, like cities, face an uphill battle. The Texas Railroad Commission gives pipeline companies absolute right to come on private property to survey and exercise eminent domain.

The Enterprise crude oil pipeline over the Edwards Aquifer was a very real threat averted, but there is a continuing threat to land, air, and water due to the state’s failure to exercise any regulatory oversight or responsibility.

Existing laws protect operators, not citizens. That has to change. But first, let’s pause for a moment and appreciate the fact that good investigative reporting and organized landowner opposition in the Hill Country together helped protect San Antonio’s water supply.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.