Austin Joins Legal Fight Against Permian Highway Pipeline

Oct 16, 2019

The city of Austin is signaling it intends to sue Kinder Morgan, the company behind the proposed Permian Highway Pipeline — a 430-mile natural gas line that has provoked major opposition in the Texas Hill Country. In filing its Notice of Intent to sue, Austin joins opposition already being mounted by San Marcos, Kyle, the Barton Springs Aquifer Conservation District and a property-owner group called the TREAD Coalition

The pipeline has already been the subject of suits and counter suits. In June, the Austin City Council announced its opposition to the project, but this is the first time the city itself has stepped into the legal fray.

Here’s why.

"Salamanders in the Fight"

You know the old expression to “have a dog in the fight?” City of Austin environmental officer Chris Herrington says the city has “two Salamanders in the fight.”

They are the endangered Austin blind salamander and the Barton Springs salamander. Herrington says the pipeline project could hurt or kill these animals.

“That water does end up in certain times of the year in Barton Springs, so any impacts that occur like the actual trenching and digging into the aquifer could come to Barton springs,” says Herrington. “Any catastrophic releases from the pipeline could come to Barton springs where they could harm salamanders and their habitat.”

Because of that risk, Austin and its allies say Kinder Morgan did not follow the necessary steps under the U.S. Endangered Species Act to permit the project. Specifically, Herrington says, Kinder Morgan needs to apply for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build the pipeline over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

“If you go and look at the final rule in the Federal Register from the Fish and Wildlife Service to list these two species as endangered, they specifically call out the potential for threats from energy pipelines,” says Herrington. “If you look in 2013 and the listing for the Austin blind salamander, they noted that energy pipelines could result in extirpation of the species by just one catastrophic leak.”

What Does It Mean?

Kinder Morgan, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are all named in the city's Notice of Intent to Sue. The notice requests that Kinder Morgan get permits from U.S. Fish and Wildlife that would trigger a stronger environmental assessment of the pipeline project.

If the company disagrees, the city and others could file a lawsuit after 60 days elapse. Herrington says Austin’s participation means the city will offer its scientific and legal resources to the court fight.

There is some precedent for Austin suing a pipeline company. In the 1990s the city  sued the operators of the Longhorn Pipeline.

That resulted in a settlement where the pipeline owners included stronger environmental protections along some parts of the project.

“That is an example of how a pipeline can be constructed to minimize risk,” says Herrington. “It's still not without risk,” he adds.

Correction: A pervious version of this story misspelled Chris Herrington's last name.