Wednesday, June 22, 2016

US To Mexico Pipeline: Unfinished Business In Ranch Lands Of West Texas

By  Lorne Matalon

MARFA, Texas---Six landowners in west Texas have won a series of awards totaling in the millions of dollars against a company building a controversial natural gas pipeline. A seventh case was adjudicated in favor of the company. The landowners are part of a group of approximately 40 people or landholding entities that are contesting compensation offers from Trans Pecos Pipeline, LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas.

The pipeline has been designated by state regulators as a "common carrier," meaning it will transport, in this case natural gas, for any natural gas producer willing to pay for the service. 

 With "common carrier" status comes the notion that a given project is in the public interest. With that designation comes legal power of eminent domain, the power to seize private land. Companies that exercise that power are obligated to pay compensation to affected landowners in recognition, in this instance, of the change to their lands that construction and installation of a 143-mile pipeline implies.

...Project supporters say local governments will earn millions in property taxes paid by the pipeline company and that the state’s natural gas producers will gain access to a new market during a natural gas glut. Additionally, the small Texas town of Presidio has said previously it will attempt to use the arrival of natural gas on the border to attract industry.

It is against that backdrop six landowners have rejected what they believe are offers that fail to adequately compensate them for the negative environmental impact that construction of a natural gas pipeline using 42 inch diameter piping will have on working ranch land. None interviewed for this story suggested the project can or will be stopped.

But they reason that does not mean they should not be fairly compensated.

Jeanne Simpson is one of the six. "I received this $18,000 offer and was told I had a week to accept it," she said as we rode in her truck across the Barreno Ranch where generations of her family have lived since the 1880s. 

...Simpson and five other landowners rejected the company’s compensation offers. So the company took the landowners before a Special Commission in early June in the west Texas town of Marfa. The commission awarded six landowners a total of around 30 times what the company had offered. 

...In her case, the offer to Simpson of $18,000 was amended and raised by the commissioners to close to $700,000. Another landowner who was offered $16,000 was awarded close to $500,000. Another was offered $33,000 and received close to $1 million.

"My immediate goal is to receive fair compensation for the damage that's going to be done to my ranch," Simpson said.

...In 2011, Austin attorney Bill Christian won a rare victory for landowners opposing another pipeline. But in an example of the energy industry's power in Texas, the pipeline company was still allowed to build while its appeals went through the courts. That case will be heard by the state's Supreme Court this Fall. With respect to this case, Christian said the pipeline will be built.

"In terms of the ultimate result of having a pipeline running across their land, that's still going to happen," he said.

...Back at Barreno Ranch, rain is falling and hailstones dance on a metal shed.
The downpour is welcome in a land where drought ruins lives. Jeanne Simpson said she often thinks of the generations of family who have lived here and endured nature's challenges in a rugged, hauntingly beautiful landscape.

"I owe their memory some courage," said Simpson.

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