A City Council committee is looking to protect the Edwards Aquifer and its recharge zone from pipelines transporting fossil fuels such as natural gas and crude oil. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

With a crude oil pipeline over San Antonio’s main water supply averted – for now – City officials are weighing whether to formally oppose such projects in the future.

A City Council committee on Wednesday took up a proposed resolution that states the council “opposes the permitting or routing of any oil or gas pipeline carrying substances with the potential to negatively impact groundwater quality” in the Edwards Aquifer, a water source supplying more than 2 million people in the San Antonio area. 

The proposed resolution came after Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) and Mayor Ron Nirenberg asked City staff to look at how best to deal with a pipeline like the one Enterprise Products Partners proposed earlier this fall to cross the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, where substances spilled on the surface can easily make their way into the underground rock layer. 

Enterprise later said it would move the route off the recharge zone after a backlash from affected landowners, some of whom worked in the oil and gas industry. Enterprise officials have said the pipeline, known as Midland-to-Echo-4, will transport oil from the high-producing Permian Basin in West Texas to an export hub in Houston. 

“Cities really don’t have any regulatory authority in this arena,” Jeff Coyle, the City’s government and public affairs director, told members of City Council’s inter-governmental relations committee Wednesday. In Texas, such matters are the purview of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), the state’s oil and gas regulator, but even the RRC has no authority over the location of a pipeline route. The RRC enforces pipeline safety regulations. 

Coyle said the City would have to work with state legislators to pass stricter laws regulating pipelines. In its current form, the draft resolution calls for more public input on pipeline routes, requiring environmental and economic impact studies, and more scrutiny around the process of eminent domain that allows pipeline companies to acquire private land to bring their products to market. 

The issue of pipelines over the aquifer is not unique to San Antonio. Last month, the cities of Austin, San Marcos, and Kyle joined a lawsuit led by landowners fighting against a proposed natural gas pipeline over a different part of the Edwards Aquifer. The Kinder Morgan Permian Highway pipeline is proving to be a flashpoint in Central Texas in the conflict between the state’s powerful energy industry and local authorities that want more say in where pipelines can go.

The Edwards Aquifer map. Image courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.
A map of the Edwards Aquifer

Committee members voted Wednesday to table the issue for now, directing City staff to more closely study the proposal and speak with local state legislators. Sandoval and fellow councilwomen Rebecca Viagran (D3), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), and Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) serve on the committee, chaired by Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8). 

In a prepared statement, Texas Pipeline Association President Thure Cannon said the organization is “pleased that the San Antonio City Council has decided to conduct further research before deciding on any further action on this proposed resolution.” 

“Pipelines are the safest, most reliable, efficient, and economic means of transporting large quantities of natural gas, crude, and refined petroleum products,” Cannon said. “In fact, pipelines safely deliver oil and gas without incident 99.999 percent of the time due to rigid pipeline integrity inspection programs.”

Ahead of the meeting, the Texas Real Estate Advocacy and Defense Coalition (TREAD), the landowner organization that worked to fight Enterprise’s line and is currently organizing against the Permian Highway line, praised the City for “recognizing the threat to Texans from unregulated pipeline routes.” 

“It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a natural gas pipeline, which contains a liquid condensate that is highly toxic, or a crude oil pipeline,” said TREAD spokeswoman Elyse Yates in a prepared statement. “We are grateful to San Antonio for calling attention to the absurdity of allowing a for-profit company to take private land and put our water at risk without so much as input from the public or an environmental impact study.”

Cannon said that when building a pipeline over sensitive areas, “pipeline operators take special care to determine any environmental impact and, once constructed, pipeline operators may only begin service after they pass rigorous testing showing they are ready for safe operations.”

At the committee meeting, Viagran talked about the risks to the aquifer if a pipeline were to leak but said she doesn’t want the ordinance to “open up a box that we might have unintended consequences on.” 

“I’d like to know what their thoughts are on this,” Viagran said of Bexar County’s delegation to the Texas Legislature. “I want to know what the temperature is.” 

Garcia made the motion to ask City staff to study the issue further and said she wanted to make sure affected groups could have input before the resolution goes before the full council. Coyle said that staff members spoke with the Texas Oil and Gas Association, Texas Pipeline Association, the RRC, the South Texas Energy and Economic Roundtable, NuStar Energy, CPS Energy, the City of Austin, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority. 

At the meeting, Julia Carrillo, the EAA’s public policy analyst, said the EAA is “fully in support of the resolution.” The authority is an independent government agency set up to regulate pumping of the Edwards Aquifer, but it has no regulatory authority over oil and gas pipelines or most other pollution threats.

“We fully support a state regulatory process and would be happy to work with the City on this,” Carrillo continued. 

Sandoval said she’s “not against all pipelines” but added that the City should be prepared for the next one. 

“I don’t want to see us make it impossible for pipelines to be going where they need to go, but as representatives for people that are depending on the Edwards Aquifer, not just for our residents but our economy, it would behoove us to make sure that water source is protected,” Sandoval said.

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7)
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7)

The City also has a significant financial stake in the recharge zone. The City has spent around $255 million in sales tax revenue since 2000 preserving more than 156,000 acres on and around the part of recharge zone that replenishes the aquifer below San Antonio. 

The issue is also relevant as top local leaders, including Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, call for a shift in sales tax funds away from aquifer protection and towards a better transportation system. Some aquifer advocates say the aquifer needs continued investment to protect against pipelines and other development. 

At the committee meeting, environmentalists urged council members to oppose any future pipelines that could harm the aquifer. The City might not always benefit from connected landowners who could persuade a company like Enterprise, they said.

“I kind of thank God for the good ol’ boy network with Enterprise,” Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance director Annalisa Peace said. “They just put it to bed really quickly.” 

While Pelaez called it “prudent” to speak to San Antonio’s state legislators before passing the resolution, he said the City shouldn’t wait too long before returning to the issue. 

“I think there’s a lot of folks that are monitoring this and people on both sides of the debate that are going to expect some kind of movement on this soon,” Pelaez said. 

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.