For the second time in three months, protesters demanded Texas Parks Commissioner Kelcy Warren’s resignation at a heated meeting Thursday. The protest comes on the heels of an executive order signed by President Trump reviving the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Warren is head of the oil and gas company Energy Transfer Partners and has been a target of criticism from Texas environmentalists because of his company’s construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail pipelines in the Big Bend region. He donated $555,000 to Governor Greg Abbott’s 2014 campaign and was appointed to the commission in November 2015.
The meeting took place at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) headquarters in South Austin, and attracted about 50 protesters who sang, chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Kelcy Warren has got to go” and beat drums outside the building.
Warren was not present at the meeting, which became contentious as irate protesters testified before the other commissioners about his oil and gas interests.
“Having the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners building two pipelines through West Texas … that is a disservice to this parks commission,” Tane Ward, a senior organizing manager with the Sierra Club, told the commission. “I ask all of you to unseat Kelcy Warren from this commission because business as usual should be protecting these lands. It should not be protecting oil and gas.”
TPWD’s deputy director of communications, Tom Harvey, said Warren was unable to attend the meeting because of a family obligation.
The commission met Thursday morning to decide on a range of issues, including whether to accept a 6-acre donation to Balmorhea State Park. The park became a focus of environmental and land rights groups after Apache Corporation’s announcement in September that it had discovered the equivalent of 15 billion gallons of oil in Alpine High, a region in the Permian Basin that includes the park. Although the company has promised not to drill on park lands or within Balmorhea city limits, environmental advocates worry that air pollution from drill sites will spoil the the region’s vistas and fracking might contaminate the spring systems that feed the park’s pool.
“That park and those springs have been sacred to us for generations,” Dave Cortez, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, told the Observer. “Recently, going back, you could not only smell what was going on in the springs, but you could taste it. It’s people like Kelcy Warren that allowed that to happen.”
The meeting grew tense at times as vice chair Ralph Duggins attempted to restrict speakers to the topic of the donation to the park, rather than Warren and fracking concerns.
“We didn’t appoint Mr. Warren; that’s Governor Abbott’s decision,” said Duggins. “If you’re just going to complain about Mr. Warren’s appointment, that’s not on topic.”
Still, protesters found ways to incorporate their fears about how fracking might affect the park while discussing whether the commission should accept the donation.
“I’m in favor [of the donation], but of course the contingent is that you respect the mission statement and protect the lands,” Nicole Stern told the commission. “A lot of the people here are concerned about the conflict of interest of one of the members and that’s why there’s that contingent, that you do accept this land with conviction and you do it honorably.”
Harvey, the TPWD spokesperson, told the Observer that the agency had ramped up security at the meeting in response to threats some commission members had received. Harvey would not specify the nature of those threats.
At a commissioner’s meeting in November, about 200 protesters gathered to ask Warren to resign from the board. At the time, citing a conflict of interest, Warren recused himself from a vote on whether to grant a pipeline easement in the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area.
Warren’s absence at the meeting on Thursday did not go unnoticed by the protesters.
“Our communities honor water here and I don’t think it’s possible if the land is for sale or we have people sitting on the commission that don’t have that best interest,” Laura Ramirez, a member of Society of Native Nations, said in her testimony before the commission. “It speaks volumes that [Kelcy Warren] is not even here today.”