AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Texas environmentalists are raising a stink over the governor’s appointment of the billionaire CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, owner of the Dakota Access Pipeline, to a commission that regulates pipelines in state parks.
The pipeline business has been good to Kelcy Warren. With an estimated net worth of more than $4 billion, Warren, 61, owns a private island near Honduras, a $25 million home in Dallas, a 3,500-acre Colorado ranch and a golf resort near the Mexico border in southwest Texas.
Warren is also a generous donor to Republican politicians in Texas. He donated $6 million to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2011 presidential campaign. Perry now leads the U.S. Department of Energy.
Warren and Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners have also donated nearly $900,000 to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott since January 2010, according to Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based political fundraising and lobbying watchdog.
Abbott was Texas attorney general from December 2002 to January 2015. He left that job to run for governor.
Abbott appointed Warren to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, or TPWC, in November 2015 to a term set to end in February 2021.
That same month, Abbott put Warren’s wife Amy Warren on the board of directors for Humanities Texas, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But Texas law mandates that most appointments by the governor to state boards and commissions be confirmed by the Texas Senate during the Texas Legislature’s regular sessions. The Legislature convenes in odd-numbered years.
The Senate’s Nominations Committee got an earful Wednesday from several Texans who say Warren shouldn’t be on a commission that regulates pipelines.
Natasha Nolan sat at a table before the committee and quickly read the state’s Parks and Wildlife Code on her laptop, making her case that the statute bars Warren from being on the commission.
Nolan said Warren has a conflict of interest because the TPWC, which oversees the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, regulates pipeline easements in state parks, and a person cannot be a public member of the commission if they own or control more than a 10 percent stake in a business regulated by the department.
“Therefore Mr. Warren’s confirmation as a commissioner would appear to be in violation of this,” Nolan said.
Though Nolan didn’t name an Energy Transfer Partners-owned pipeline that’s regulated by the TPWC, the company owns the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail pipelines in West Texas.
The pipelines move natural gas from the Permian Basin, a hydrocarbon-rich area in West Texas and New Mexico, to Mexico.
Nolan also told the nominations committee that TPWC can ban people from shooting guns within 200 yards of a state park and that Warren owns the Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa, on the southeastern edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are shooting ranges at the resort.
“It would appear then as a commissioner Mr. Warren would be able to regulate what activities are allowed and which are prohibited on his own commercial property,” Nolan told the Senate committee.
Nolan said under the Parks and Wildlife Code, the governor must appoint experts from diverse fields like historic preservation, conservation and outdoor recreation to the TPWC.
“Presumably this is so the Texas PWD can fulfill its mission statement, to manage and conserve the natural and cultural resources of Texas and to provide hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation activities for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. I would suggest that Mr. Warren cannot be considered an expert in any of these fields and indeed his record of environmental devastation precedes him,” Nolan said.
State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, is one of seven senators on the nominations committee.
He told Courthouse News on Wednesday that the committee will bring Warren’s nomination up for a vote on April 20.
Miles said he didn’t hear the testimony Wednesday morning against Warren because he was laying out bills in two other committees. “But as an elected official, I take constituent feedback and testimony very seriously and use it when I consider a vote,” he said in an email.
The Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter is spearheading a campaign to get Warren off the TPWC. The environmental group said in a statement Wednesday that as CEO of the company that owns the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Pipelines, Warren has no place on the state board.
“The Nominations Committee should send a message to Governor Abbott that this department needs leadership that actually has relevant experience – not just a big checkbook,” Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said in a statement.
Abbott’s office didn’t respond Wednesday to a request for comment on reports he gave Warren a seat on the TPWC for his campaign contributions.
The Dakota Access Pipeline made Warren’s company a target of environmentalists and Native Americans, who gathered in North Dakota in the thousands last summer to protest construction of the pipeline, which runs 1,172 miles from North Dakota to an Illinois oil-storage facility.
Energy Transfer Partners finished the Dakota Access Pipeline in late March after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to expedite environmental review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps had refused in December to grant an easement for the pipeline to be laid under a reservoir on the Missouri River. The agency was more open to protestors’ concerns under the environmentally friendly administration of former President Barack Obama.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which led the protests, said the Dakota Access Pipeline disturbed its sacred sites and could contaminate its water supply.
Early this year, dozens of activists left the Standing Rock protest camp and went to West Texas to demonstrate against the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail Pipelines.
Energy Transfer Partners owns Sunoco Inc., operator of 4,700 gas stations in 26 states.
An Energy Transfer Partners spokesman who is on vacation referred questions about Warren’s seat on the TPWC to Sunoco on Wednesday. Sunoco didn’t respond by press time.
The Sierra Club says the $40 million Energy Transfer Partners agreed to pay to settle claims by federal regulators that it manipulated natural gas prices in Houston in response to Hurricane Rita is more evidence Warren doesn’t belong on the TPWC.