The golden-cheeked warbler — a compact, yellow-headed songbird that migrates from Mexico to Central Texas each March — is in trouble. The endangered species, which nests nowhere else but the cedar breaks of the Texas Hill Country and surrounding areas, has in recent years seen its habitat shrunk and fragmented by urban sprawl and has faced competition from the brown-headed cowbird, a sneaky rival that likes to lay its eggs in warbler nests. One place the warbler can still find sanctuary is on the 6F Ranch, part of a 3,800-acre property along the Blanco River where environmentally sensitive land has been retired from development. As residential development in eastern Hays County booms, it’s one of the region’s few large tracts to remain intact.
Enter: Kinder Morgan. In October, the multibillion-dollar energy company informed Lucy Johnson, whose family owns the ranch, that it plans to run a natural gas pipeline straight through the property. The ranch is one of thousands of private properties in the path of the so-called “Permian Highway” pipeline, which would trace a southeasterly path from the West Texas oil patch to the Gulf Coast, where the gas will be exported around the globe. On its 430-mile Gulfward journey, the pipeline would gash the Texas Hill Country, a quickly growing and environmentally sensitive region that’s been relatively untouched by oil and gas development.
“I grew up on the ranch along with my sister. It’s paradise for us and our family,” Johnson said. Kinder Morgan wants to clear-cut a 150-foot-wide swath of old-growth live oak and junipers on the property; that’s tough luck for the warbler, an insect eater that nests in the treetops. Johnson said the company’s plans could also spell trouble for the Trinity and Edwards aquifers, which underlie the ranch. (The Edwards Aquifer provides drinking water to 80 percent of San Antonio.) Any leaks from the proposed pipeline could trickle down to the groundwater, she said.
“If there was some sort of a spill and it got down into the aquifer, how could that ever be cleaned up?” asked environmental advocate Louie Bond, who lives between Kyle and Wimberley. “It might ruin the drinking water for a lot of people.”
It’s not just songbirds that flock to the Texas Hill Country. Once an inhospitable backwater that frustrated settlers with its droughts and stingy soil, the region’s sparkling streams and scrubby vistas have helped transform it into a popular destination for weekenders and retirees. Bed-and-breakfasts, wineries and well-kept ranchettes have largely replaced the farms and ranches of yesterday. The Hill Country, especially the fringe near the booming I-35 corridor, is already stressed by rapid population growth. The oil and gas development that’s gripped the state over the years, especially in the petroleum “extraction colony” of Midland-Odessa and the frack-happy Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, has mostly missed the region.
Kinder Morgan’s plan has predictably drawn the ire of Johnson and other Hill Country landowners concerned about the pipeline’s potential environmental impact. But they’re also peeved that Kinder Morgan can essentially take whatever land it wants — state law grants private, for-profit companies the power of eminent domain. There’s not much recourse available to property owners who don’t want the pipeline on their land.
In Hays County last week, county commissioners called a public meeting to gather community input; hundreds of people packed the Wimberley Community Center to ask questions and voice their concerns. Some landowners, like Johnson, have hired attorneys to discuss their legal options. Kinder Morgan spokesperson Allen Fore said the company reaches “mutually agreeable” resolutions with landowners 90 percent of the time; it only uses eminent domain as a “last resort.” As for residents’ environmental concerns, Fore said he’s “absolutely confident this construction process and the operation of a pipeline is safe for the environment.”
The legislative blowback from the pipeline may have already begun. Republican State Senator Lois Kolkhorst, of Brenham, filed a bill late last month that would bolster the rights of landowners who tangle with private companies in eminent domain cases. Representative Erin Zwiener, a freshman Democrat who represents Hays and Blanco counties, told the Observer that she plans to introduce a bill this month that would require pipeline companies to conduct environmental assessments even if their projects don’t cross state lines. As the law currently stands, interstate natural gas pipelines fall under the purview of federal regulators, who can require such a study. But a pipeline built only in Texas is regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission, which doesn’t force companies to evaluate possible environmental harm.
“Residents have very little recourse and there’s no public oversight or accountability,” Zwiener said. “Eminent domain is an important power of government, but it’s one that has to be used judiciously. We have delegated that authority to private companies, who by their very design, are mostly concerned with profit.”
Fore said his company has tried to be flexible with property owners in the pipeline’s path. “We’ve made hundreds of adjustments to the line based on individual landowner concerns,” he said. In the rapidly growing city of Kyle, for instance, Kinder Morgan appears to have slightly shifted the pipeline’s route after city leaders illustrated that it could disturb new housing developments on the city’s west side. Could the entire pipeline’s path be altered to avoid the iconic Hill Country altogether?
“That’s not likely,” Fore said.
Disclosure: The Burdine-Johnson Foundation, of which Lucy Johnson is a member, is a financial supporter of the Texas Observer.