Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioner Kelcy Warren is also the CEO of controversial pipeline builder Energy Transfer Partners.
Update, 7:00 p.m., November 3:
Warren recused himself from voting on a pipeline easement in the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area. The issue has been tabled till the next meeting. He also agreed to meet with Pete Hefflin of the Society of Native Nations to discuss desecration of sacred burial grounds.
This post has been updated to include comments from an Energy Transfer Partners spokesperson.
A routine Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) commission meeting turned contentious Thursday morning as protesters, echoing the movement to stop pipeline construction in Standing Rock, North Dakota, urged commissioner Kelcy Warren to step down.
Warren is head of Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Trans Pecos and Comanche Trail pipelines in West Texas.
Dressed in shades of blue to signify the importance of protecting water sources, beating drums, burning sage, singing and chanting, about 200 protesters gathered outside the department headquarters in South Austin. Many held up colorful signs that read “Stop Kelcy Warren,” “Oil pipelines are meant to be blocked” and “Save our parks from Kelcy Warren.”
The commission met Thursday to decide on a number of issues related to the operation of the agency and land exchanges. Also on the agenda: whether the agency should grant a pipeline easement in the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area in East Texas and accept 640 acres near the Big Bend Ranch State Park. Protesters who testified at the hearing used the opportunity to highlight Warren’s position on the board and what they saw as a resulting conflict of interest.
“Because of Mr. Warren’s monetary connection to Governor Abbott’s office, because his company is building pipelines in Texas in the largest protected national park, because there’s no guarantee these pipelines won’t leak, causing irreparable damage to these lands, I respectfully ask you, Mr. Warren, please recuse yourself from this position,” said Sarah Hickman, an Austin musician, in her testimony. “I do not believe you can honestly make objective decisions on behalf of the parks you’re appointed to protect.”
For the most part, Warren remained silent as Hickman and others repeatedly accused him of disrespecting Native Americans and putting profits ahead of people. Since 2013, Warren has given more than $700,000 to Abbott’s political action committee, Texans for Greg Abbott, and the governor appointed Warren to the commission last year. But it’s not Warren’s close ties to Texas politicians alone that have protesters angry.
Over the last several months, Energy Transfer Partners has come under fire from environmental, social justice and native groups over its treatment of protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock. There, the company has used attack dogs and pepper spray, critics say, in an attempt to intimidate and dissuade protesters. Last month an independent expert on the treatment of indigenous peoples appointed by the United Nations also criticized the treatment of the protesters at Standing Rock, saying the U.S government should “fully protect and facilitate the right to freedom of peaceful assembly of indigenous peoples.” Those sentiments spilled over into the protest at the TPWD headquarters on Thursday.
“Kelcy Warren is a sham,” said Rockie Gonzales, an environmental and social justice activist attending the protest. “He’s ordering dogs on our people and ruining our lands.”
Vicki Granado, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, told the Observer in an email that the company’s “priority has been and remains safety – the safety of our employees and our assets, the safety of those who live and work in the area and the safety of the environment.”
Gonzales said she and other protesters, many of whom refer to themselves as “water protectors,” saw the protest as an expression of solidarity with the demonstrations in North Dakota. Like the Standing Rock protesters who fear that the Dakota Access Pipeline will break and contaminate water sources, Gonzales said, protesters in Texas worry that fossil fuel projects such as the West Texas pipelines, LNG plants along the coast, fracking in Balmorhea and the Eagle Pass coal mine would pollute rivers and groundwater sources.
“When it happened in Standing Rock, we became so aware of how they disrespectful they are,” said Jacalyn Hagans, a Cherokee and a member of the Society of Native Nations. “As native people we believe the creator tasked us with protecting the earth and we take that seriously and we’ve just had enough.”
Although the protest Thursday was peaceful, the agency had extra security on hand. TPWD spokesman Josh Havens said the agency had received some threats over the last few days, but said he did not know the nature of the threats.
Hagans said her group and others have more protests planned this month and that they would continue until Kelcy Warren stepped down or was removed from his position.
“The way I look at it, this is a serious enough thing for me that I will fight till I die, or I will die fighting,” said Hagans. “If it would help the cause, I would do that for my people.”