Landowners Got One Hill Country Oil Pipeline Moved. But Can They Do It Again?

Rule No. 1 of averting pipeline routes: Always bring a high-powered, politically connected oil and gas executive to the negotiating table.

Andy Sansom walks on his property in the Hill Country near Stonewall. A proposed new natural gas pipeline would pass through his ranch.
Andy Sansom walks on his property in the Hill Country near Stonewall. A proposed new natural gas pipeline would pass through his ranch. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Rule No. 1 of averting pipeline routes: Always bring a high-powered, politically connected oil and gas executive to the negotiating table.

Andy Sansom walks on his property in the Hill Country near Stonewall. A proposed new natural gas pipeline would pass through his ranch.
Andy Sansom walks on his property in the Hill Country near Stonewall. A proposed new natural gas pipeline would pass through his ranch. AP Photo/Eric Gay

A month after news surfaced that a pipeline proposed by a Texas-based petroleum juggernaut would run across the Edwards Aquifer, the primary source of water for San Antonio and other cities, the company said it would shift the pipeline’s path. It was a difference of approximately 65 miles, and Hill Country residents opposing the project cheered the change—a major victory given that the oil and gas industry typically doesn’t kowtow to landowners’ concerns.

So why the monumental move by Enterprise Product Partners, a $5 billion oil and natural gas company headquartered in Houston?

The controversy started last month, when Bandera County landowners began receiving letters from the company informing them that they were in the path of the pipeline stretching from Midland to just southeast of San Antonio. The Rivard Report, which broke the news, pointed out that the pipeline would also cut through the Edwards Aquifer’s recharge zone—and that a spill in the area could taint a crucial Texas drinking water supply. “This is extremely troubling news to all of us in the Bandera Canyonlands, especially the affected landowners,” one resident told reporter Brendan Gibbons.

Landowners implored Enterprise executives to listen to their concerns, and in an unlikely twist, the execs raced down to the Hill Country to listen. The company capitulated; it would move the pipeline out of the recharge zone.

Don’t chalk the about-face up to the company’s benevolence, though. It might have helped that among the contingent of rankled landowners was Dan Hord III, a Midland oil and gas executive whose family owns ranchland in the county. Hord is a partner at HEDLOC Investment Co. LLC, a petroleum investment firm; he also sits on Baylor University’s board of regents. His wife, Jenni Hord, operates a property development and leasing firm and was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to the board of Humanities Texas in 2015.

It’s impossible to know exactly how much sway the Hords held in the meeting, but after the path had been shifted, Dan Hord was clearly appreciative, telling the Rivard Report, “Enterprise has done a great job of evaluating it and doing the right thing.” He did not respond to an Observer request for comment.

Enterprise’s proposal is not the only hotly contested pipeline project scheduled to bisect the Hill Country in coming years: Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway Pipeline will carry natural gas from West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, slicing through water supplies and the habitats of endangered species on its way. The damage, both to property values and wildlife, could be astronomical, which is why treehuggers and private property types are banding together against the project. Thus far, Kinder Morgan hasn’t budged. So what are the chances that the relative success against one pipeline project could translate into success against another?

Luke Ellis, an attorney representing Hill Country landowners against Kinder Morgan, called the Enterprise reversal “a one-off you don’t see very often.” He said it likely was a boon for Enterprise opponents to have friends in such high places, “but how does the regular person deal with that? [Pipeline companies] say, ‘Tough luck, you get it whether you want it or not.’”

The golden-cheeked warbler—an endangered species—nests nowhere else but the cedar breaks of the Texas Hill Country and surrounding areas, where Kinder Morgan plans to lay its pipeline.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

David Cortez, the Sierra Club’s clean energy coordinator in Texas, said the victory against Enterprise speaks volumes to the outsized influence held by the oil and gas industry here. “It’s a simple formula. One oil and gas executive equals how many people? Is it 80,000 people? Is it 50,000? To me, that’s the biggest lesson we’ve learned in this Enterprise fight: Some people have power and others don’t.” Cortez pointed out that officials leading the state agency tasked with regulating the oil and gas industry are flush with petroleum cash. From 2011 to 2016, Texas Railroad commissioners raked in $6.6 million in political contributions from the industry, fully 60 percent of their total fundraising.

If opponents of the Kinder Morgan project have such secret weapons, they haven’t brought them out yet. And if they don’t, they must have forgotten Rule No. 1 of averting pipeline routes: Always bring a high-powered, politically connected oil and gas executive to the negotiating table.

In any case, local residents, along with the City of Kyle and Hays County, have seen only marginal success in their respective legal battles against the pipeline. In June, a district judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Hays County against the state and Kinder Morgan that sought to freeze the company’s eminent domain authority. When Kyle passed an ordinance in July to more strictly regulate pipelines locally, the company upped the ante, filing a countersuit and telling Community Impact that “We are confident the Railroad Commission will find [the ordinance] to be unsupported and, thus, invalid.” In local courts, landowners have successfully argued that Kinder Morgan lowballed reimbursements for land affected by the pipeline, but the increased awards are almost certain to be appealed.

Kelly Darby, a spokesperson for the Texas Real Estate Advocacy and Defense Coalition, which is mounting legal challenges to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, said she’s happy that Enterprise decided to change its route. But she’s not hopeful Kinder Morgan will respond in the same fashion unless forced by a court. “I don’t think that’s really gonna translate to our situation,” she said. “If we’re able to push the route, I don’t think it’ll be because Kinder Morgan wants to play nice.”

Editor’s note: This story originally stated that the pipeline was rerouted by four miles, not 65. The Observer regrets the error.

Read more from the Observer:

Do you think free access to journalism like this is important? The Texas Observer is known for its fiercely independent, uncompromising work—which we are pleased to provide to the public at no charge in this space. That means we rely on the generosity of our readers who believe that this work is important. You can chip in for as little as .99 cents a month. If you believe in this mission, we need your help.


Christopher Collins is an Observer staff writer covering rural Texas. He can be reached on Twitter or at [email protected]


You May Also Like:

Top