Around The Bend Of The Rio Grande, A Proposed Pipeline Stirs Turmoil

Around The Bend Of The Rio Grande, A Proposed Pipeline Stirs Turmoil

5:37pm Aug 07, 2015

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Pumpjacks on the horizon, pipelines snaking across the landscape - the energy industry is a big part of the state of Texas. But there's a corner of the state where there's little evidence of oil and gas, and as Marfa Public Radio's Travis Bubenik reports, some people who live there are worried that could soon change.

TRAVIS BUBENIK, BYLINE: The Big Bend region in far West Texas is a place where some cattle ranchers have been in the same family for generations. In this windy and mountainous high desert corner of the state, there aren't any oil rigs, no gas wells, no coal and no big pipelines. But a Dallas company wants to build a 143-mile natural gas underground pipeline here, not to bring gas to Texans, but to Mexico. That doesn't sit well with some people.

JOEL NELSON: They are simply wanting to get their gas into Mexico.

BUBENIK: At a community meeting about the pipeline, rancher Joel Nelson says he doesn't care what the pros or cons are, he just plain doesn't want it here.

NELSON: Pipeline's going to cross one mile of our country in addition to two other miles of country that we have leased for grazing, but that is not the issue.

BUBENIK: Opponents say the issue is bigger than one pipeline running through one person's land. Nelson's part of an unusual coalition of environmentalists and landowners who are worried about spoiling this land. It's Texas's backyard, where people come to get away from big cities, development and sprawling industry. This region is home to treasures like the University of Texas's McDonald Observatory.

Inside, observatory employee Coyne Gibson says among his other concerns about the pipeline, he's worried it could bring in light pollution to one of the darkest places in the country.

COYNE GIBSON: From an official university policy, that's all I care about. As a resident of the region, however, I would rather this not be here.

BUBENIK: Gibson's also a volunteer firefighter who's seen how fast wildfires can spread in this rugged country. He says there's no way small crews could handle a fire on high-pressure pipeline. Archaeologist David Keller leads a local opposition group called the Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

DAVID KELLER: It's a massive pipeline intended to supply fuel for Mexican power plants. We want cleaner energy for Mexico of course, but not at the expense of the Big Bend, and that's basically what's going on. It's going to help Mexico, that's good, but it's going to hurt us.

BUBENIK: The pipeline company says it won't hurt, it will help. Energy Transfer's V.P. of engineering, Rick Smith, says the project would bring millions in tax revenue to local counties, which aren't exactly rich.

RICK SMITH: For the region as a whole, the energy sector, it's helpful for producers. It's economic development for local counties, in terms of spurring industry that they didn't have before.

BUBENIK: The company's faced an uphill PR battle. Congressman Will Hurd has criticized Energy Transfer for not being transparent enough. So the company's considering alternate routes and boosting safety measures on the line and also burying it deeper underground. Opponents don't trust the safety promises, especially after one of company's pipelines exploded in South Texas. They asked Smith about that at a recent meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: That investigation is still ongoing, so tonight we won't be addressing or answering any questions with respect to the incident in Cuero.

BUBENIK: Two counties aren't thrilled about the pipeline either. In an unusual move in oil and gas-friendly Texas, they've asked for more federal oversight. Even with all the opposition, landowners in the pipeline's path will have to decide if they want to put up a fight or whether they'd like the extra cash they'd get as compensation. As it stands, they've let the company onto their land to survey most of the pipeline's route. For NPR News, I'm Travis Bubenik in Marfa, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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