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Texas group tries through FERC process to protect 'untouched natural area'

An environmental organization has turned to FERC to fight anatural gas pipeline crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, proposed by an affiliate, which the group worries would harm the region's tourism industry.

The Big Bend Conservation Alliance has lobbied for months toreroute the Trans-Pecos intrastate pipeline in an attempt to mitigate theproject's presence in "one of the last remaining open spaces in thecountry," as the group's Executive Director Mattie Matthaei described thearea. The intrastate pipeline itself is not underFERC jurisdiction, but a proposed border-crossing facility that would connectto the pipeline is under the commission's jurisdiction. Even though theintrastate pipeline falls under the jurisdiction of Texas' Railroad Commission,the environmental group has advised interested parties to protest and remaininformed about the project through FERC.

"We really have no means of protesting on a state level,"Matthaei explained.

Energy Transfer's Trans-PecosPipeline LLC filed the applicationfor the Presidio border-crossing project with FERC on May 28, 2015. Commissionstaff determined thatwith mitigation measures the project would not significantly affect theenvironment. FERC has not yet issued a certificate toauthorize the construction and operation of the project.

The Presidio project would only run 1,093 feet betweenPresidio County, Texas, and Manuel Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico. Trans-PecosPipeline has also proposed the 194-mile, 42-inch-diameter Trans-Pecosintrastate pipeline system and related facilities within Texas. The pipelinewould traverse three counties — Pecos, Presidio and Brewster — to deliver gasfrom the Waha Hub into Mexico, as part of an agreement with Mexico's ComisionFederal de Electricidad. Together, the projects woulddeliver up to 1.4 Bcf/d of gas into Mexico.

Matthaei, a resident of Alpine, a town near the Trans-Pecospipeline route, voiced concerns over the intrastate pipeline's potential impactto cultural and natural resources and to the tourism industry.In 2014, Brewster County's tourism department reported an approximately 15%increase for the 2013 fiscal year's hotel and motel tax revenues, whichresulted in over $1 million increase from 2012. Presidio County's official website boasts about local attractions such as hunting, the nearby Big BendNational Park, and the Marfa lights, a phenomenon that draws fans of ghoststories and UFOs.

"Our tourism is directly, directly derived from anddirectly related to the open space — an untouched natural area that we havehere," Matthaei said.

Trans-Pecos Pipeline stated the intrastate pipeline willbring tax benefits and construction jobs to the region and generate localrevenue. The pipeline is also expected to create approximately 350construction and labor jobs.

"It is always a priority to hire locally when possible,"said Vicki Granado, spokeswoman for Energy Transfer.

Matthaei was skeptical that the projects would providesignificant benefits. While an estimated $7.1 million would be paid in totalannual ad valorem taxes to the three counties crossed by the pipeline, Matthaeisaid, the counties would still incur significant costs, including firstresponder and emergency training, and "wear and tear" on roadways andinfrastructure due to construction activities.

"To us, it appears to be a net loss, not a net gain,"Matthaei said.

As for employment, "the only additional [local]jobs would be local subcontractors," Matthaei said. "It'll betemporary, and it's just not worth … the long-term destruction to theenvironment and to the cultural resources, which in turn undermines our touristrevenue."

Hundreds of letters to FERC have focused on theTrans-Pecos and Presidio projects. The letters said the commission ought toconsider the two proposals as the same project instead of two separate ones. "[Weare] not saying that we are against pipelines," Matthaei said, and addedthat his group considers natural gas a viable energy source. The group'sprimary concern is the potential sacrifice of the area's resources for ashorter route. "There's just too much at stake for that."

Coyne Gibson, another member of the Big Bend ConservationAlliance, does legal research for the group. Gibson said the group will takeits case against FERC on the Presidio pipeline to federal court if it must.Gibson acknowledged that such an attempt probably would not halt constructionof the Trans-Pecos pipeline.