Big Bend Landowners Awarded Millions Over Pipeline, but the Fight Isn’t Over Yet

Big Bend, trans pecos
Big Bend landowners in an eminent domain fight with the company behind the Trans-Pecos pipeline scored a small victory Monday when a special commission awarded ranchers nearly 30 times more than the pipeline company originally offered.  Joe McGowan/Flickr/Creative Commons

In a victory for Big Bend ranchers and conservationists, a Presidio county special commission has awarded six landowners about $2.8 million in compensation for the use of their property to construct the Trans-Pecos pipeline and the resulting loss in property value.

The assessment is close to 30 times the amount the company vying to build the pipeline offered as compensation for rights-of-way around the buried pipe.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) has so far filed eminent domain lawsuits against about 40 landowners in Brewster, Presidio and Pecos counties. At least seven of those cases were heard by special commissioners in the last week, according to attorney Zachary Brady, who represents landowners seeking higher compensation from ETP. Landowners prevailed in six cases, and commissioners ruled a seventh case in favor of the pipeline company.

The Trans-Pecos, a 143-mile pipeline that will move natural gas from the Permian Basin to the border at Presidio and into Mexico, has been a controversial issue in the Big Bend region since ETP announced plans to build it more than a year ago. Landowners and environmental advocates say the pipeline will ruin the region’s pristine wilderness and pose safety threats to nearby residents, while ETP says the project will improve air quality in the region by providing northern Mexico with low-carbon natural gas.

The Trans-Pecos opposition efforts have garnered national media attention — including support from celebrities — but have failed to halt progress on the pipeline. ETP has sailed through the permitting process and was granted approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in May.

The recent condemnation hearing awards are a win — if only a minor one — for the landowners who have said the pipeline company has been low-balling them.

Of the six cases decided in favor of landowners, the special commissioners awarded the McGuire ranch, in Presidio County, the largest sum — close to $1 million. The pipeline company had offered the ranch owners about $33,000 in compensation for damages.

But Big Bend advocates do not expect the awards will play a significant role in deterring ETP, which is owned by billionaire Kelcy Warren, from constructing the pipeline. The company began construction in earlier this month and expects it to be operational by March 2017, pumping up to 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day.

“The net of this is you’ve got a $766 million project, and the revenue backed up could be in the billions,” said Coyne Gibson, a volunteer at the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, an environmental group trying to stop the pipeline. “If everyone got $1 million, you’re still looking at chump change [for ETP].”

Despite its name, a special commissioners hearing is a standard administrative procedure in eminent domain cases. A district judge typically appoints disinterested landowners who reside in the area and who do not have any special legal or technical knowledge to assess how much landowners are owed in exchange for allowing companies access to their land.

Brady said he is under “no illusions” that this is the end of the legal battle and expects ETP will appeal the decisions to a trial court.

The pipeline company can begin construction while litigation is pending and landowners cannot request that a court halt construction of the pipeline while the case is ongoing.

In the recently decided Presidio cases, ETP argued that compensation should be limited to the losses incurred along the pipeline easement alone, while landowners argued that the damages awarded should take the devaluation of the surrounding property into consideration.

The landowners also noted that the pipeline company’s appraiser had conducted the assessment without stepping foot on the property.

“Not only did they not come on the properties, they were instructed by the company not to do so,” said Brady.

Vicki Granado, an ETP spokesperson, said she wasn’t familiar with the particulars of the case, but that as a general rule the company needed the landowner’s permission before entering the property. The compensation offers were made based on the appraised value of the property as determined by independent experts, she said.

Since the pipeline received regulatory approval in May, the Sierra Club, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance and others intervenors have filed a request for a rehearing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They argue that the commission granted a permit to a small section of the pipeline that crosses into Mexico without considering the impact of the full stretch of the pipeline.

The Big Bend Conservation Alliance also recently took out a full page ad in the Dallas Morning News urging Kelcy Warren to reroute the pipeline. The letter was signed by Owen Wilson, Tommy Lee Jones and other famous musicians, actors and Big Bend residents.

The Big Bend Conservation Alliance isn’t backing down. According to Coyne Gibson, there is “a common misperception that this is a done deal.”

“We’re trying to send a clear message to the [energy commission] and Texas Railroad Commission that there is still a viable way to stop this,” he said.

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Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering the environment, energy and climate change at Grist. She previously covered environmental issues at the Texas Observer, InsideClimate News and ProPublica. At ProPublica, she was part of a team that reported on the water woes of the West, a project that was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University and was a 2017 Ida B. Wells fellow at Type Investigations. You can contact her at [email protected] and follow her work on Twitter.

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