Pipeline Watch is our attempt to track every contested oil and gas pipeline in the United States.
Just southwest of Austin, TX sits a 14,000 square-mile region known as the Hill Country. To those unfamiliar, picture it as a Texas version of California Wine Country. Each year, the region draws an estimated 30 million visitors with its natural beauty or the drinking and upscale shopping. Oil and gas operators working in more industrial parts of the state have typically looped their pipelines around the Hill Country rather than go through it, such as the Cactus II pipeline that started shipping crude oil from Midland to the Gulf last year.
The Project: The Permian Highway Pipeline would be the first new oil or gas pipeline constructed through the Hill Country in more than 50 years, according to advocates fighting the project. It’s a proposed 42-inch pipe that would carry natural gas from Midland to the Gulf Coast, a 430-mile journey from the west to the south. The project is backed by Kinder Morgan, a multi-billion dollar corporation based in Houston and one of the biggest names in the oil and gas pipeline business. At stake is the area’s sensitive natural resources—the pipeline would cross two key aquifers that supply drinking water for millions and feed Austin's iconic Barton Springs swimming hole.
Industry experts see the Permian Highway Pipeline as setting an important precedent. The project represents an increasingly aggressive push for more drilling and oil and gas production in Texas.
“My sense is, there has been more pipeline activity in the last three years than any comparable stretch of time that I can remember,” said Luke Ellis, a Texas attorney who represents private property owners fighting pipeline projects that would cross their land.
In a statement, the industry trade group the Texas Pipeline Association confirmed that there has been “significant” pipeline construction in Texas “to keep up with increased production as America strives to become energy independent.”
In a call to investors last year, Kinder Morgan reportedly said that construction has already begun on the Permian Highway Pipeline and could be complete by 2021. While Kinder Morgan is still waiting on some federal permits, the state oil regulator called the Texas Railroad Commission has already given the project the greenlight and is known for routinely approving new pipeline routes without public hearings or extensive environmental review. Fossil fuel companies also have broad authority in Texas to use eminent domain, or the forcible seizing of private property for a supposed public good.
Luke Ellis, the attorney representing affected landowners in this fight and numerous others, says his clients can challenge Kinder Morgan in court over how much compensation they are entitled to. But they can’t stop the pipeline construction from happening on their land. "My clients don’t want the pipeline at all,” he said. “Unfortunately, the way the eminent domain process works, often we're left to fight about the dollars," rather than the pipeline itself.
The project has faced pushback from affected cities and watershed management agencies, citing concerns that the pipeline crosses important rivers and aquifers. But the local governments also have limited power. In July, Kinder Morgan filed a lawsuit against the town of Kyle, TX, after town leaders passed an ordinance attempting to regulate the pipeline’s construction. Two months later, city officials announced that they would settle with Kinder Morgan because the town could no longer afford to keep fighting. “Kinder Morgan made more profits in the second quarter of this year than Kyle's entire operating budget for the last decade,” Kyle city officials said in a statement.
Meanwhile, locals say that other types of public projects, like power lines or roads, involve far more public input than oil and gas pipelines do.
“It should cause most Texans to be ashamed of the fact that we give private industry a blank check and be able to run roughshod over private landowners, our cities and towns and counties,” said Katherine Romans, the Executive Director of the Hill Country Alliance. “No one is involved in routing decisions for these pipelines until the route has already been selected and the company for all intents and purposes is ready to start construction.”
A spokesperson for Kinder Morgan declined to answer a detailed list of questions from Motherboard. In past statements, Kinder Morgan has portrayed natural gas pipelines as a safer and greener alternative to transporting fossil fuels.
But in its 2018 annual report, Kinder Morgan also characterizes its natural gas pipelines as being in direct competition with renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar. The report identifies “increasing demand for energy efficiency” and renewables as potential threats to the Kinder Morgan business model.
As Kinder Morgan’s annual report said: “emerging technologies and public opinion have resulted in increasing demand for energy efficiency, including energy provided from renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels…each of the foregoing could negatively impact our business directly as well as our shippers and other customers.”
How people hope to stop it: The Hill Country Alliance said that any hope of reforming the Texas eminent domain process lies in electing new state representatives. Several state lawmakers have already introduced legislation to make such reforms, though the bills didn’t get very far.
But if recent history is any indication, public pressure can also work. Last, another Houston-based firm proposed a markedly similar project, a pipeline that would have cut through the Texas Hill Country, and most controversially, deliver crude oil under the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer, which supplies drinking water for San Antonio. But multi-billion-dollar operator Enterprise Product Partners agreed to re-route the project after a property owner who just happened to be an oil and gas executive got involved.