(CN) — A 143-mile natural gas pipeline in the Big Bend is 90 percent complete and set to open in March, but conservationists are still fighting to stop it, claiming it could destroy the area’s ecosystem and economy and threaten human lives.
The Trans-Pecos Pipeline will carry natural gas from Texas gas fields to power plants in Northern Mexico. It is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the corporate parent of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Big Bend Conservation Alliance sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, seeking review of FERC’s approval of the pipeline and construction and operation of the Presidio Border Crossing Project.
The Big Bend, in West Texas, is a remote, arid area of sometimes astonishing beauty. Big Bend National Park, at 801,163 acres, is the largest protected area of desert in the United States. It hosts more than 1,200 species of plants, 600 species of animals, rich fossil beds and pre-Columbian artifacts dating back 9,000 years.
The area is named for the big bend the Rio Grande takes as it heads south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Though the national park is one of the nation’s largest, its remoteness makes it one of the least visited, though it draws more than 300,000 visitors a year, according to the National Park Service, many of them hikers, backpackers and birdwatchers come to observe the area’s 450 species of birds.
Other groups working to stop the Trans-Pecos pipeline are using the Standing Rock Sioux protests in North Dakota as a model, though there are no federally recognized tribal lands in the region.
The Big Bend Defense Coalition and the Society of Native Nations have set up a camp on private land outside of Big Bend Ranch State Park. On Saturday, several dozen protesters from the camp entered a pipeline construction site and two people who chained themselves to construction equipment were arrested.
Lori Glover, who owns the camp land and is a spokeswoman for the coalition, said protests against the pipeline will continue until construction is completed.
“We don’t know if it will grow fast enough to really do what we want to do, because it’s almost done,” Glover said. “We still have a chance, but it’s getting to be a smaller and smaller chance every day.”
The FERC has determined that only 1,093 feet of the pipeline, the segment that crosses the international border, falls under its jurisdiction.
In a document attached to the nonprofit group’s petition for review, the FERC calls this segment — the Presidio Border Crossing Project — “merely a link” between Mexico and the rest of the pipeline, which originates near Fort Stockton, Texas.
FERC says the rest of the pipeline, as an “intrastate pipeline,” falls under the jurisdiction of the Texas Railroad Commission, which has limited authority to regulate gas pipelines. Such pipelines are not even required to be permitted before being built in Texas.
The Big Bend Conservation Alliance claims the FERC intentionally limited its jurisdiction to this section to avoid having to conduct a comprehensive environmental assessment of the entire pipeline.
“It’s a deliberate violation of the law,” said Coyne Gibson, a volunteer with the Conservation Alliance.
Construction of the pipeline has already had “significant” environmental impacts, destruction of habitat and topsoil and damage to 135 streams, creeks and seasonal wetlands, Gibson said.
He said the pipeline construction has “obliterated” a 5,000-year-old archeological site, and inflicted damages “exceeding $1 million” to ranches, grazing lands, hunting leases and fencing.
Under Texas’ eminent domain law, Energy Transfer Partners seized land from dozens of property owners to construct the pipeline.
The company’s spokeswoman Vicki Granado told The Guardian newspaper for a Jan. 9 article that “underground pipelines provide the most environmentally safe and the most efficient means to transport natural gas, crude oil or other carbon-based energy products that are critical to Americans’ daily lives, and to our economy.”
The Conservation Alliance filed its petition for review on Jan. 3.
Gibson, who worked in petrochemical, oil and gas field engineering for about a decade and is a volunteer firefighter, said the pipeline poses significant safety risks to the region.
The Trans-Pecos region through which the pipeline passes is composed largely of shortgrass prairie, served entirely by a volunteer firefighting corps of fewer than 100 volunteers.
If part of the pipeline exploded, Gibson said, firefighters would not have the resources to deal with it.
“We’re concerned, Gibson said. “Pipeline accidents are not infrequent and not impossible,”
The Conservation Alliance has participated in the FERC permitting process since June 2015, when it was granted the right to intervene. After FERC granted a permit for the project, the association and 22 other people and organizations requested a rehearing, which the FERC denied.
“There were no surprises in what has transpired,” Gibson said. “[The association] went into the process with open eyes and the foreknowledge that we would need to leverage all aspects of due process available to us.”
Gibson said the association hopes the petition can shut down the pipeline before it opens, or at least bring a temporary injunction and additional environmental protections. If the petition prevails, Gibson said, it could “provide a barrier to follow-on projects” that might try to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act and jurisdictional regulation.
Glover, the protest spokeswoman, said damage already caused by pipeline construction may be irreversible.
“You see the big scar across the landscape, and they say they’re going to return it to its original, vegetative state,” Glover said. “But in a delicate ecosystem, that’s really pretty impossible.”
The Big Bend Conservation Alliance is represented by Carolyn Elefant, in Washington, D.C.