Dakota Pipeline Standoff Echoes In Texas: Mexico Still Counting On US Natural Gas
MARFA, Texas - Opponents of a pipeline under construction in west Texas are pleased by the national attention garnered by the protest against the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline in North Dakota.
Construction in North Dakota has been temporarily halted following months of protest. But many people in west Texas are frustrated that it has taken a recent ruling by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halting the work in North Dakota to bring national attention to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in Texas.
In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans and their allies attracted widespread attention from both the national media and from Wall Street.
The Sioux's reservation is near Dakota Access. They said the pipeline could threaten their water. Months of protests and rallies have for now translated into a megaproject stopped as it is relatively close to completion.
Coincidentally, a Dec. 13 pipeline leak spilled significant amounts of oil into a creek approximately 150 miles from the Dakota Access protest encampment at Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
The spill is the kind of development that opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline point to as an example of the kind of accident they fear.
Both the Dakota Access and Trans-Pecos pipelines are being built by a consortium led by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas.
The company recently announced a merger with Sunoco Logistics. Both companies are controlled by general partner Energy Transfer Equity.
President-elect Donald Trump has nominated former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be the new Secretary of Energy. Perry is a member of the Board of Directors of Energy Transfer Partners.
In North Dakota, the Army Corps of Engineers ruling has been welcomed by opponents of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in the Big Bend of Texas, so named for the arc the Rio Grande traverses in the borderlands where the high desert cascades down to the river.
The Trans-Pecos Pipeline has been paid for by Mexico. The route, the most direct and therefore least costly path from the natural gas laden Permian Basin of Texas to the border, was selected by Mexico. It was then approved by the State of Texas.
Mexico said it needs the natural gas to power electricity plants.
Beginning in November 2014, many Big Bend ranchers and environmentalists, constituencies that don’t always see eye-to-eye in Texas, formed a coalition opposing the pipeline. But their outcry never reached the critical mass it did in North Dakota.
That may be changing.
Near Marfa, Texas in the high Chihuahuan Desert, rancher Jeanne Simpson's land, in her family's custody since the 1800s, is now a construction site.
"You can see the scar across the land for miles," she said as she drove along the pipeline's route. "There it is, lurking along like this huge rocky serpent."
Energy Transfer seized her land using the power of Eminent Domain, which Texas gave to the company.
To date, Simpson and numerous others have not received compensation owed them under Eminent Domain law in Texas. Simpson is one in a group of landowners that was the target of legal action by Energy Transfer Partners Trans-Pecos Pipeline, LLC.
In 2016, six landowners won a series of awards totaling in millions of dollars, given after the pipeline company sued the landowners. A seventh case was adjudicated in favor of the company.
The landowners are part of a larger group of approximately 40 people or landholding entities contesting compensation offers and who have retained legal counsel.
Energy Transfer Partners Trans-Pecos Pipeline LLC said in an emailed response that it is appealing the verdicts against it. In the same email exchange, the company said that it has offered fair compensation to landowners. However, landowners and others interviewed for this story claim otherwise.
Simpson said the North Dakota ruling is welcome here. "The Sioux have been treated poorly for a couple of centuries and whatever victory they can win, I'm in favor of that."
Since the Dakota ruling, Native Americans in Texas and their non-Native allies have gathered multiple time at the perimeters of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline.
Energy Transfer has said it respects the right to peaceful protest.
"You live on this earth! You need this just as much as we do! Let's take care of her!" exclaimed Native American Aaron Tellez to a pipeline construction worker in a video captured by independent photojournalist Jessica Lutz.
Speaking of preservation, Land here includes some of the last legacy ranch land in the United States.
In North Dakota, any rerouting of the pipeline means Energy Transfer would have to get easements from property owners in other parts of North Dakota, who might say "not here," an echo of voices in Texas.
“They have no idea the devastation that we feel," said archaeologist David Keller. He is with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, a group of landowners, ranchers and area residents.
"The fact that it's taken this incredible clamor in North Dakota to get us on the radar has been frustrating, though I must say that I'm very glad by what has transpired," Keller said. “I thought there would be enough people out there that love the Big Bend and realized its majesty and its significance to Texas and the United States. And I thought, I guess foolishly, that all we’d have to do is sorta put it out there and say, 'Hey this area’s at risk.' And the fact that that didn’t happen was very disconcerting.”
Both pipeline controversies are also on the radar in Mexico.
Pipelines bringing in U.S. natural gas are lynch pins of the country's energy reform program, a plan that proposes cleaner electricity generation through the use of natural gas rather than oil, a more stable supply of electricity and lower prices for businesses, manufacturers and consumers.
The price and delivery of electricity are particularly irksome issues In Mexico. In 2017, four U.S. natural gas pipelines will begin delivering to Mexico.
In the next three years, U.S. pipeline capacity into Mexico will nearly double.
José Manuel Carrera heads business development at Pemex, Mexico's state-owned energy company. He did not comment specifically on any individual pipeline. But he said Mexico is counting on timely delivery of U.S. natural gas.
"Construction of these pipelines is making available more natural gas - decreasing prices of power in Mexico."
Mexico appears nervous about the election of Donald Trump. But on this issue, the Mexican energy establishment is with him. The President-elect said once in office, the standoff in North Dakota will be resolved quickly.
But despite pipeline regulation being a state matter in Texas, several pipeline opponents in Texas said Trump’s election likely means there’s no hope to stop construction here.
However, several people interviewed for this story suggest they are not deterred and feel emboldened by developments in North Dakota. They said they will try at the very least to keep their opposition to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in the public eye.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Fronteras Desk reporter Lorne Matalon is the 2016-17 Energy Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute and KBH Center for Energy, Law and Business.