The public should have a say before anyone cuts a pipeline through the Texas Hill Country

A few weeks ago, construction on the Mopac Expressway near Slaughter Lane in Austin came to an abrupt halt when the workers encountered a larger than normal karst feature. Karst features are essentially holes in the limestone underneath our feet that channel water from the surface into our underground aquifers. They stopped because construction around karst features has to be done carefully to ensure both that surface water can reach the aquifer and that the water isn’t contaminated on its way there.

Any construction project that disturbs five acres or more of land in the Edwards Aquifer region requires coordination and permitting from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to protect our groundwater and karst features — except oil and gas projects, including pipelines. This is because of one section in the Texas Water Code that places jurisdiction over oil and gas activity under the Texas Railroad Commission instead of TCEQ.

When these protections for the Edwards Aquifer were established in the 1990s, no one anticipated they’d need to apply to oil and gas. The region doesn’t produce fossil fuels, and no new pipeline had crossed the Hill Country and our vulnerable aquifers since the 1950s. But today, Kinder Morgan hopes to build a 42-inch pipeline across the Hill Country and the Edwards Aquifer, and those of us in the pathway are personally experiencing the state’s lack of oversight.

Kinder Morgan is making all kinds of statements about safety and environmental protection and treating landowners decently. But here’s what they won’t tell you:

  • There will be no state oversight to protect karst features during the construction of the Permian Highway Pipeline. We will have to rely on Kinder Morgan’s word that they’re doing the right thing.
  • While the company says its current plans are to only transport natural gas (which poses less water contamination risk than crude oil) in the Permian Highway Pipeline, nothing in the law prevents them from retrofitting the pipeline to transport crude oil or another liquid if they deem it profitable. This exacerbates concerns about groundwater, especially in light of recent leaks in the nearby Longhorn Pipeline.
  • Kinder Morgan is taking a permanent 50-foot-wide easement with an additional 75 feet for a temporary construction easement. This means an up to 125-foot-wide swath will be cleared of trees for the length of the pipeline, and 50 feet of that will be kept permanently clear of large vegetation. That will constitute an unprecedented scar across the Hill Country. When earlier pipelines were built in this area last century, the easements were often narrower, because pipeline companies hadn’t started aerial monitoring yet and construction equipment was smaller.
  • This removal of trees will have a material impact on endangered species, particularly the golden-cheeked warbler, which only breeds in a small corner of the Texas Hill Country. Instead of going through the standard U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service process and getting an individual permit for damaging critical habitat, Kinder Morgan is trying to take a shortcut by rolling its project into an existing nationwide permit that doesn’t address the specific ecological concerns of the Hill Country.
  • There is no public process in Texas for determining where one of these large common carrier pipelines should go. The state gives these pipeline builders authority to take people’s land with no process to determine if the individual pipeline or the planned route makes sense. This is less transparency and accountability than what the state itself is required to do when building a road.
  • The Permian Highway Pipeline is crossing Hays County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation. While they may talk about minimizing the number of impacted landowners, Kinder Morgan chose to route their pipeline through one of the nation’s key growth corridors. Hays County and the city of Kyle are still trying to wrap their arms around the economic impact of losing high-value development land to a pipeline, but the impact is substantial.
  • There are no minimum standards for surface mediation after pipeline construction, and no oversight to ensure it was done correctly. If landowners want to protect the wildlife or agricultural value of their land with native seed or double trenching, they have to negotiate that into their easements with Kinder Morgan. If the company doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain, the landowners’ only option is to sue. (Note: Kinder Morgan’s own representatives told me that TCEQ, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation oversee surface remediation on private land. None of that is true.)
  • If a landowner disagrees with the price Kinder Morgan offers for land and takes the case to the special commission, that landowner loses all ability to negotiate special conditions like surface remediation, saving heritage trees or micro-adjustments to the route. The special commission can only rule on price, not any of these other concessions.
  • A group of landowners in Blanco County were just awarded a total of 88 times what Kinder Morgan had offered them for their land. 88 times. Kinder Morgan is low-balling Texas landowners and trying to coerce them to the bargaining table.

If the Permian Highway Pipeline had gone through a thorough public routing process that included input from local elected officials, environmental assessments, economic assessments and public comment, and the route selected still came through the Hill Country, I wouldn’t be happy, but I would accept it. If Texas had basic protections in place for our landowners, our water and our wildlife, I wouldn’t be happy with this result, but I would accept it.

But this decision wasn’t made in a transparent way; it was made in a corporate boardroom with no affected people or local leaders present. These pipeline companies operate in a regulatory black hole, where they are responsible for overseeing their own environmental compliance and fair treatment of landowners. That’s just not good governance, and it’s unfair to the people of Texas.

The proposed Permian Highway Pipeline bisects my district, crossing through or near the cities of Blanco, Wimberley, Woodcreek, Kyle and San Marcos. All of these cities have passed resolutions asking the Legislature for more protections and oversight when privately owned pipelines use the power of eminent domain.

Trust must be earned, and by shortchanging our landowners, cutting our local officials out of the planning process and giving only lip service to environmental considerations, Kinder Morgan has demonstrated that people of the Texas cannot trust it. The folks of the Hill Country aren’t just advocating for their own land, they’re advocating for all of Texas. We all need protection from bad actors exploiting regulatory holes. It’s time for the Texas Legislature to step up and implement a public routing process for large transmission pipelines, and common-sense protections for our landowners, our communities and our environment.

Erin Zwiener

State Representative, District 45