A natural gas pipeline has residents of the wide-open and biologically rich Big Bend region of Texas fuming.
The Trans-Pecos Pipeline would run 143 miles of 42-inch pipe through far West Texas, known for its unspoiled and stunning desert landscape, and conclude halfway across the Rio Grande. There, it would connect to pipe on Mexico's side of the river that extends into the country's interior. Once completed, the pipeline would transport up to 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.
Mexico's Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) selected a consortium of companies that includes Houston-based Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to construct the pipeline.
"There's a litany of concerns," said David Keller, a representative of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA). "The pipeline is just a predecessor to more infrastructure. It's going to bring more of the oil and gas industry trappings to the landscape."
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The Trans-Pecos region is known for its rugged but fragile desert ecosystem, which draws some 300,000 visitors to Big Bend National Park each year.
Beyond the pipeline's environmental impact, area residents have flooded city and county meetings with concerns about public safety. The proposed route of the pipeline runs adjacent to the city of Alpine and through many of the region's private ranches.
Emergency response teams around West Texas are largely voluntary, strapped for resources, and ill equipped to deal with a potentially volatile pipeline explosion.
Just last week, an ETP natural gas pipeline ruptured in southeastern Texas, sparking a fire that could be seen from 20 miles away, according to the Associated Press.
Lisa Dillinger, a spokesperson for ETP, told VICE News the company was investigating the cause of the accident.
"We filed incident reports with [state regulatory agencies ] and are also cooperating with [them] in their investigations into the cause of the incident. We will not have information on the cause until investigations are complete," she said.
At a recent meeting held in the city of Alpine, residents of Sunny Glen — a neighborhood with only a single road running into and out of it — voiced concerns about a contingency plan in case of an accident.
"I've only been in Sunny Glen for seven years and we've already been trapped once by a railroad accident," said Scott Wasserman. "There was no way out."
But the concerns might be a classic case of too little, too late.
The CFE announced its plans in June of last year. But many West Texas residents were unaware of the proposal until mid-March, when they began to receive letters requesting permission to conduct land surveys on their properties if the were along the pipeline route.
By the time pipeline opponents organized their inaugural meeting, a 23-acre parcel of land had already been cleared by ETP for use as an equipment yard. Shipments of pipe began arriving shortly after.
In recent weeks, the BBCA and the Washington DC-based Earthworks have teamed up to rally opposition to the pipeline and provide legal resources for landowners along its route. But they face a deep-pocketed and influential adversary. ETP is a Fortune 500 company and an active player in Texas politics. The company contributed nearly $1 million in campaign funding over the past eight years and former Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry serves on its board of directors.
Despite the pipeline crossing the US-Mexico border, ETP says that it's a domestic project. This means it falls under the authority of the Texas Railroad Commission rather than requiring the approval of the US State Department, like is the case with the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada to oil refineries along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.
The company will have to attain a permit through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the small piece of pipeline that cuts beneath the Rio Grande, but according to a FERC representative, the process is routine and does not account for the rest of the 143-mile pipeline.
"We look at the border-crossing portion of a pipeline, typically limited to several hundred feet, and we make sure it will be properly installed and operated," the agency's Gordon Wagner. "Our assessment of the facilities at the border does not include a review of the potential adverse impacts of the non-jurisdictional intrastate pipeline that will bring gas to the border."
In the absence of federal review, the pipeline falls under the jurisdiction of the Texas Railroad Commission, which, opponents said, seems unlikely to impose restrictions on the pipeline's route or its operations.
"[ETP] has built thousands of miles of underground pipelines in this country and we understand that this is all part of the process when proposing and constructing a pipeline," Dillinger told VICE News. "We look forward to continuing to work with landowners, city and county officials, regulatory agencies and others as the project continues to develop."
The pipeline is slated to begin shipments in early 2017.
Coyne Gibson, an engineer who previously worked in the oil and gas sector, has teamed up with BBCA.
"I don't pretend to say it's an easy fight when you're going to be fighting billionaires who have lots of lawyers and lots of money and lots of time. But they do have a deadline and their pockets are only so deep," he said. "And you could make this hard for them."
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Photos by Sasha Von Oldershausen