VAN HORN, Texas—When word spread this summer among residents of this small West Texas town that a 48-inch diameter natural gas pipeline—larger than others in the region—was coming their way, they saw it as a threat to their town’s tranquility and sense of security.
Van Horn resident Yolanda Carmona learned that the proposed Saguaro Connector Pipeline would run underground near a property she recently bought at the edge of town. The third-generation cattle rancher has deep family roots in Van Horn, a town that straddles Interstate 10 and sits midway between El Paso and Midland-Odessa.
Even though Carmona works for the city as an events and tourism director, she said she first heard of the pipeline this summer when the Property Rights and Pipeline Center, a national nonprofit, held an informational meeting in town.
“I really had no idea what was coming, not a single clue,” she said.
The proposed Saguaro Connector Pipeline would transport natural gas from the Permian Basin to the U.S.-Mexico border, passing within one mile of Van Horn, where 80 percent of the population is Hispanic and the median household income is just over $37,000—about half the state median.
Saguaro would connect to another proposed pipeline in Mexico to transport gas to the coast of Sonora, where a proposed facility would liquify it for export to Asia and South America in tanker ships. The liquified natural gas (or LNG) export project in Sonora, called Saguaro Energía, has been in the works since 2018.
Suddenly the future of this 2,000-person town was tangled up with the global natural gas market. Van Horn residents in the pipeline’s path worry their small town doesn’t have the emergency management capacity to respond to explosions or leaks along the pipeline, and they are distraught that local land would be snatched through eminent domain for construction. They question why they should sacrifice their land for a pipeline exporting gas abroad.
Meanwhile, national environmental advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club, warn that the project is advancing with limited federal oversight and goes against the Biden administration’s stated climate goals of phasing out fossil fuels.
The pipeline proposal recently received the blessing of the U.S. Department of State, and the state Railroad Commission—which regulates oil and gas and oversees pipeline safety in Texas—issued a permit, months before residents in Van Horn say they knew about the project.
Now many are pressing state and federal agencies to force the company to reroute the pipeline farther from town or kill the project altogether—even though other pipelines crossing from Texas into Mexico have been granted permits without the additional scrutiny advocates are calling for.
Because the Saguaro Connector would not cross into other U.S. states, federal regulators are only responsible for permitting a 1,000-foot section where the pipeline crosses the Texas-Mexico border and don’t have authority over its route through Texas. The Railroad Commission of Texas also lacks legal authority over the pipeline’s route.
But residents and environmentalists argue that because the pipeline would transport gas for export abroad, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates natural gas pipeline construction, should review the full route and assess its likely contributions to climate change for years to come.
Celeste Miller, a FERC spokesperson, said the agency cannot comment on the pending pipeline permitting process.
A State Department spokesperson said the agency gave its support to the pipeline in part because sending natural gas through the pipeline could help reduce flaring of natural gas in the Permian Basin.
Public Citizen, an environmental watchdog nonprofit group, blasted the State Department decision, saying it “shows yet again that the Biden Administration’s support for unfettered fossil fuel exports compromises its position to address the climate crisis.”
The pipeline company, Tulsa-based ONEOK, did not comment on residents’ concerns and said project development is ongoing.
“We are continuing to coordinate with all applicable agencies,” said ONEOK communications consultant Annell Morrow.
Penny Self, who moved to Van Horn a decade ago and has spoken out publicly against the pipeline project, said the proposed route is within one mile of the Van Horn RV Park that she owns, and she worries about her grandchildren’s safety if it is built.
“They’re coming so close to town it just blows my mind,” Self said. “Who is it going to benefit? It’s not going to benefit us.”
Self said the small subdivision of mobile homes and modest single-story houses closest to the pipeline’s path is home to mostly elderly residents who speak limited English. She said she has tried to inform as many people as she can about the pipeline project.
“I’m just doing this because of the kids, and the people that don’t have a voice or are afraid to speak up,” she said.
An Intrastate Pipeline With International Impacts
The Saguaro pipeline would not be the first to transport natural gas from West Texas to Mexico. Mexico depends on the U.S. for a large portion of its natural gas and in recent years pipelines including the Trans-Pecos in Brewster County near Big Bend National Park, Roadrunner in Pecos County and the Comanche Trail in El Paso County have all gone online to transport natural gas from Texas to Mexico.
But what sets Saguaro apart is its planned size—its diameter and capacity is larger than similar West Texas pipelines that export to Mexico—and the final destination of the exported gas.
The 155-mile, four-foot diameter line would send 2.8 billion cubic feet of gas per day from the Waha gas gathering hub in Pecos County to the border in Hudspeth County—passing through Reeves, Jeff Davis and Culberson counties. That’s double the amount of natural gas that Vermont’s 645,000 residents consume in a day.
After crossing under the Rio Grande into Mexico, the pipeline would connect to the proposed Sierra Madre pipeline, which would cover another 500 miles to a proposed export facility in Puerto Libertad, Sonora.
The Mexico infrastructure would be owned by Mexican Pacific Limited, a Houston-based company working in partnership with Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission.
MPL did not respond to a request for comment.
Once liquified, the gas would be sent on tankers to Asia or South America. The project would compete with existing LNG export terminals on the Gulf of Mexico, which send tankers through the Panama Canal to reach Asia. In application materials, MPL says the Sonora export facility would shorten the journey by 11 days.
For the pipeline to be constructed, a number of state and federal agencies must approve a series of permits and conduct an environmental analysis. But none of those agencies has authority over the entire project, which is subject to less government scrutiny because it doesn’t cross state lines within the U.S.
When a pipeline crosses more than one U.S. state, FERC regulates the entire route, analyzing environmental impacts and the economic necessity of the project. But pipelines within one state’s boundaries, known as intrastate pipelines, are subject to the rules of that state rather than oversight from FERC.
According to Bill Caram, the executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization, Texas has the “most lenient and the most permissive” policies for the pipeline industry.
Under Texas law, the Railroad Commission has no authority over the routing or siting of pipelines—the RRC website describes the process as “one of registration, not of application.” Companies are required only to file what’s called a T4 permit application, which agency spokesperson Patty Ramon said provides the agency information “for our extensive pipeline safety inspections.”
The state agency already has approved Saguaro’s permit.
Caram said this approach gives operators wide leeway to site pipelines and use eminent domain to seize the private land they need along the pipeline route, as long as they’re considered a common carrier pipeline. Operators can obtain this status if the pipeline will transport gas for customers who will either sell the gas to third parties or retain ownership of the gas.
The federal agencies’ authority is mostly over the short portion of the Saguaro Connector pipeline that would cross the Rio Grande. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to approve the Saguaro Connector pipeline under Nationwide Permit 12, a general permit for construction that’s expected to have minimal environmental impact on bodies of water. The Army Corps has not yet received the permit application.
FERC must still issue a presidential permit to construct the 1,000-foot segment that would cross the border, which includes an environmental analysis. The permit has received the necessary support of the State Department, and a final decision from FERC could come at any time.
The State Department asked FERC to conduct an analysis of the project in keeping with a Biden administration directive released this year that recommends federal agencies conduct environmental reviews of proposed projects like pipelines to estimate their future greenhouse gas emissions. But FERC declined, saying that should be the U.S. Department of Energy’s responsibility.
While ONEOK’s permit application to FERC is only for the 1,000-foot section of the pipeline that crosses the border, the Sierra Club and Public Citizen have filed protests with the agency, arguing that it should assume authority over the pipeline’s entire route through Texas. The groups cite legal arguments and case law on pipeline and gas export permits and argue that Saguaro should be declared an interstate pipeline—and therefore subject to more federal scrutiny—because it would carry gas from states other than Texas.
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Doug Hayes, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, said FERC has “minimized” its role in the Saguaro project and that it’s a legal “gray area” whether FERC is required to do an analysis of the likely climate impacts of pipeline projects like this one.
He said the Biden administration has given its approval to a project that would “lock us into decades of fossil fuel development and burning overseas.”
Environmental advocates made the same argument in 2015 as they fought the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in the Big Bend area. FERC ultimately did not analyze the entire route and the pipeline began operating in 2017.
Meanwhile, Mexico Pacific Limited has applied for a Department of Energy permit to export natural gas to Mexico, then re-export that gas to other countries. The DOE is accepting public comments until Dec. 27 on its draft environmental assessment, which considers factors such as the environmental impacts of natural gas exploration and production in the U.S. and includes a review of Mexico’s permits for the proposed Mexican part of the project.
It’s one of the only remaining opportunities for Texas residents to be heard by a federal agency about the project. There will be a second comment period on the final environmental assessment in 2024.
Environmental advocates believe that if the Mexico portion of the pipeline isn’t built, the entire project will be canceled. So the Sierra Club and Public Citizen have both intervened to protest MPL’s application to the DOE to export natural gas to Mexico.
The Sierra Club argues that natural gas exports would increase domestic natural gas prices, increase gas production and associated air pollution and emission of greenhouse gasses.
In Mexico, environmental organizations also are challenging the Sierra Madre pipeline that would carry gas from the Texas border to the Mexican coast, and the proposed LNG terminal that would export the gas to other nations. They argue that the environmental impact assessment filed with Mexican regulators is flawed and warn that LNG tankers in the Gulf of California, which currently has little heavy industry, could disrupt the migration patterns of gray whales, blue whales and whale sharks.
“Mexico is giving in to the fossil fuel industry and creating infrastructure and long-term commitments for fossil fuel transportation and consumption,” said Pablo Montaño, general coordinator of the nonprofit Conexiones Climáticas in Mexico. “This puts us in a bad position to try and reach our climate commitments.”
Fernando Ochoa, a Mexican environmental lawyer and director of Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN), an environmental organization focused on north-western Mexico, said the private investors in the project will profit while local communities will bear the environmental burdens.
The gas “is not for internal consumption and there aren’t any benefits for Mexico,” he said. “To the contrary, Mexico will suffer all the impacts.”
“It’s a Helpless Situation”
Carmona, the Van Horn resident, first heard of the pipeline when the Property Rights and Pipeline Center, the national nonprofit, hosted a meeting at City Hall in July. Carmona fetched chairs as the room filled with concerned residents.
Carmona brought her concerns to the City Council at its Nov. 27 meeting. She worried whether the town’s small volunteer fire department would be able to handle a pipeline rupture. She said recent earthquakes in the Permian Basin heightened her concern that pipelines could explode.
Carmona urged council members to take action and organize meetings to inform the community of the proposed pipeline before it is approved.
“I think we have a loud voice,” she said. “I think we can do it.”
Carmona and her husband are raising two children and recently purchased a property on the southern edge of town to build a home. The pipeline would pass less than a mile south of the property.
She said the town doesn’t even allow fireworks on the Fourth of July because the fire risk is too high and water is too scarce. “So we can’t even bring fireworks to this town, but we want to bring this pipeline, this extremely huge pipeline?” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
As news of the pipeline proposal spread in Culberson and Hudspeth counties, residents questioned how the government can bless a project that requires seizing Texans’ land for a pipeline that will export Texas gas to Asia.
The PRPC, which supports landowners challenging eminent domain claims for pipelines, came to Van Horn with an eminent domain lawyer who explained how pipelines may affect residents’ property and how they can negotiate for better compensation if the pipeline company seizes their land.
Locals are also concerned that if there’s an explosion or other emergency along the pipeline route, medical help is often hours away.
The nearest emergency room is several towns away. The nearest Level I trauma center, which can provide the highest level of care, is 120 miles away in El Paso.
“It’s a helpless situation,” County Judge Carlos Urias said in late November. “If there’s an emergency … you’re evacuating the whole town.”
Culberson County Emergency Coordinator Cody Davis, who also owns a house near the pipeline route, sent a letter to the Railroad Commission in October expressing his opposition to the pipeline. He outlined the county’s struggles to staff its ambulances and respond to emergencies with just three volunteer firefighters.
“How is it acceptable for me to be first notified of this project through an [non-governmental organization] instead of the government when the permitting process began at the end of last year?” Davis wrote.
Most of all, people here say they feel ignored by far away regulators—whether in Austin or Washington—who seem all too willing to permit a large pipeline near a majority low-income, Hispanic community. Some of them have traveled to Austin to meet with state lawmakers and Railroad Commission staff, hoping they can exert some sort of pressure to move the pipeline’s route.
Residents in other states have had some success killing or altering gas pipeline projects. Recently a company proposing a carbon capture pipeline in the Midwest decided to pull out of their plans after a lot of public pressure. Other high-profile projects, like the Keystone XL pipeline in North Dakota and the Palmetto Pipeline in Georgia, were canceled after lawsuits, pushback from state legislatures and massive protests for months that drew national attention.
With final approval from FERC and DOE still pending, locals still hope to weigh in on the project as time and options are running out. Residents and advocacy organizations have submitted comments on the FERC docket. Some are calling and emailing county officials and state representatives.
“Van Horn is special,” said Lori Simmons, a community organizer with the property rights group. “At the very least they’re learning their rights. They are truly learning what they are allowed to have a voice over.”
State Sen. César J. Blanco, who represents Van Horn, said in an email that he shares “the environmental, health, and safety concerns of the proposed Saguaro pipeline” and that his office is working with state and federal agencies “with jurisdiction of the proposed pipeline to alleviate local concerns.”
Bill Addington, whose family ranch in Hudspeth County would be near the pipeline’s path, traveled to Austin in October to speak at a Railroad Commission meeting and meet with legislators to discuss the planned pipeline. Addington said if Texas elected officials speak out against the project, it will increase pressure on ONEOK to heed local concerns.
“We want them to be our advocates. We want them to advocate for us publicly,” Addington said. “They represent us.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had approved the Saguaro Connector pipeline. The Army Corps has not yet received the permit application.