A fight over a pipeline is never only about the pipeline. It’s about the environment, property rights, public safety and a community’s sense of itself. Just such a fight is now brewing in the Texas Hill Country, where company Kinder Morgan plans to lay a part of its 430-mile natural gas Permian Highway Pipeline.
The Houston-based company says the time is right for the project. An unprecedented drilling boom in West Texas means there’s more oil and gas coming out of the ground than companies can ship to market. The pipeline would carry natural gas to the Gulf Coast, where it can be sold domestically or exported.
The quickest way there is through the Hill Country, including places like the Hershey Ranch in Gillespie County.
The ranch, a 1,500-acre spread of rolling hills and weathered terraced fields, is dotted with trees, ponds and structures dating from the 1800s. If the pipeline is built underneath it, Kinder Morgan would also control about a 100-foot-wide swath of land above the pipeline to maintain it.
“It will go right through the heart of the ranch,” says owner Andy Sansom.
Sansom is a well-known conservationist, who once headed up the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He’s especially upset about the pipeline because the Hershey Ranch is private conservation land, where no development is supposed to occur. But, he says, his neighbors with more traditional properties don’t want the pipeline either.
“There are few parts of our state that are as iconic as the Hill Country,” he says. “It’s very clear that the people who live out here see this as an assault."
The idea that the Hill Country may be too “iconic” for this pipeline is something you can expect to hear more of as the project gets underway. Opponents have already raised concerns over the potential environmental, aesthetic and public health impacts. Kinder Morgan says it’s willing to make small adjustments to the route to accommodate landowners. But the pipeline is coming.
“I had someone say the other day – 'Just move it 70 miles south and you’ll have no problems,'” says Allen Fore, vice president of public affairs at Kinder Morgan. “Well, I assure you that someone owns property 70 miles south, and there are other concerns and issues that would present themselves on any significant reroute.”
But pipeline opponents say they shouldn’t have to take the company’s word on that. They point out that in Texas there is no public process or oversight that happens before letters go out to property owners saying a pipeline’s coming.
If a landowner doesn’t want the pipeline, the company can use eminent domain to take the land anyway.
“One of the first questions we always get from a property owner is: ‘How in the world can a private, for-profit pipeline company take my land?’” says Luke Ellis, a lawyer representing landowners, including Sansom, in their negotiations with Kinder Morgan.
He says all a company has to do to claim the right to take land is fill out a form and file it with the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s strangely named oil and gas regulator
“You and I could form an LLC tomorrow and we could start to submit a T-4 permit to the Railroad Commission saying that our LLC wants to build a private, for-profit pipeline company,” Ellis says. “There’s virtually no oversight there.”
That's something Texas has been grappling with in the courts and at the Capitol for decades. During the last several legislative sessions, lawmakers representing property owners have filed bills to overhaul the system, and the oil industry and others that use eminent domain have fought those efforts. In the end, nothing much changes.
“I just think that there’s a huge coalition of … entities that take properties, that coalesce to lobby the Legislature in a way where they do not want to change the framework,” Ellis says.
When these debates rise up, the industry usually points out that the use of eminent domain is pretty rare.
Fore says the company is working with landowners to make them happy, and part of that is arriving at agreeable compensation for the land. He says the last thing the company wants are unhappy landowners.
“Eminent domain is an absolute last resort and that’s not just some talking point that we came up with; that's reality,” he says. “Because an adversarial relationship with a landowner that you cannot reach agreement with is an adversarial relationship that is going to be with you for a very long time. And that’s just not good.”
But in some cases, an adversarial relationship is what happens.
At the Hershey Ranch, Sansom says he wants a change in state law to create more oversight over pipeline companies. And, he says, with a new legislative session getting started not far away in Austin, the time is right.
“I’m excited that it’s got people stirred up out here,” he says. “People in the Hill Country are not happy about this.”