Big Bend Counties Want More Federal Oversight on Trans-Pecos Pipeline

Some West Texans are up in arms over a planned natural gas pipeline that would carry gas from the Permian Basin, through pristine state land and across the border to Mexican power plants.

By Travis BubenikJuly 6, 2015 9:05 am|

This story originally appeared on Marfa Public Radio

Locals in Presidio and Brewster Counties have been organizing to stop the Trans-Pecos Pipeline for some time. But now county officials are getting involved. If the pipeline plan continues to move forward, the counties want it to meet stricter federal regulations.

As it stands, the government would only have jurisdiction over a small part of the pipeline – the part that will stretch halfway across the US-Mexico border. There, it’ll meet up with another line coming from the Mexican side.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has to approve a permit for that part. The Texas Railroad Commission regulates the rest of the line.

But Presidio and Brewster County say they want the federal commission to cover the entire pipeline.

“We feel that – if we’re gonna keep it safe at the end, that it be safe at the hub all the way to where the custody is taken over by Mexico,” Brewster County Judge Elezar Cano says. 

He hopes expanding the fed’s jurisdiction would lead to stricter safety and environmental measures than what the Railroad Commission requires.

Most of the pipeline would run through rugged ranchland with few people nearby – but Cano’s worried about the part that’s expected to run through the Alpine area.

“If something were to happen on that part of the pipeline, or going through the residential area, those are our main concerns.”

Dr. Fred Beach is with the University of Texas’ Energy Institute.

“If it relates to energy, we work on it,” Beach says. 

He says it’s “highly unlikely” that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would agree to the county’s request – because that could turn the pipeline debate into a federal versus state’s rights issue:

“And as we know very well here in Texas – we get our hackles up pretty quick whenever the fed, or in our opinion the fed, starts to overstep their authority within a states’ rights issue,” Beach explains. 

So have other local authorities asked for this type of federal oversight from the commission before? A commission spokesperson says she’s not aware of any previous cases that quote “raise issues that are on point with those raised by Brewster and Presidio counties.”

But Dr. Beach says the issue is bigger than the Big Bend region.

He says this project would give Texas producers a huge new market in Mexico – and also help expand Mexico’s energy sector. So that would make it hard to convince the federal government the pipeline is a bad thing – after all – the U.S. wants to be a good neighbor.

“So I think at the national level , this’ll be seen as us helping out Mexico in a lot of ways.”

But that’s exactly what opponents say is the problem with the pipeline – it’s designated a public utility, meaning it’s supposed to be in the public interest. But they say the public it would benefit is in Mexico – not in Texas.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says it won’t address the counties’ request until the commission decides on the pipeline’s border permit, and that could take more than a year.