Barreling Through the Hills

In early April, residents of the Texas Hill Country listen for the songs of golden-cheeked warblers. These small, endangered birds come every spring to the only place in the world where they build nests and raise their young. But, in April of 2020, bulldozers drowned out the familiar birdsongs as work crews began laying the Permian Highway Pipeline. The pipeline, when complete, will cut a 430-mile-long swath across the heart of Texas Hill Country. When completed, its operator plans to deliver two billion cubic feet of natural gas from West Texas to a processing facility on the Texas Gulf Coast. There it will be converted to liquified natural gas and pumped onboard tanker ships bound for the world market.

Even though Texas is a “property rights state,” Texas law gives pipeline companies the right of eminent domain even if property owners whose land lies on the path of the pipeline object to construction for environmental reasons or loss of property value. The companies can build where they like if they claim to be providing infrastructure for transporting natural resources. The Permian Highway Pipeline, for instance, will cross through thousands of properties, including the city of Kyle, and claim a 125-foot easement on these properties. They can do that by simply ticking a box on a form provided by the body that oversees the oil and gas industry, the Texas Railroad Commission (which, oddly enough, has had nothing to do with railroads since 2005).

Texas leads the nation and the world in the production of oil and gas. The proceeds of mineral leases on state land largely fund the University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems. The fracking boom, centered in West Texas, where the pipeline will originate, has made the Texas Public University Fund one of the wealthiest in the country.

Nevertheless, numerous lawsuits challenge the pipeline, primarily for lack of proper environmental studies. Besides the effect on native animal species, a major concern has focused on the karst topology characterizing much of the region. Karsts are underground systems of tunnels and caverns formed by limestone or dolomite rock dissolving over time. Karstified landscape like that in this region magnifies the dangers of pollution to local aquifers, as ground level pollution may flow unimpeded into a water system, without the usual filtration that happens in a porous aquifer. Concern over the effects of a spill in this fragile terrain has prompted much public outcry. The courts so far have mostly sided with the pipeline’s builder and operator, Kinder Morgan, a Houston company and one of the largest infrastructure companies in North America.

“At a time where we as a country are facing uncertain outcomes,” Elizabeth Coldwell, a spokeswoman for Texans for Natural Gas, told the Houston Chronicle in response to a court ruling rejecting a challenge from property owners, “it’s reassuring to see critical infrastructure projects like the Permian Highway Pipeline avoid falling victim to litigious activists seeking to undermine the energy industry. Now, more than ever, Texans need the comfort of knowing that the industry that helps fund our schools, pay our teachers, and fill the coffers of Texas’ Rainy Day Fund maintains its license to operate.”Another challenge to the pipeline is the current oil and gas glut on the world market, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic that has driven down demand and prices. “It seems pretty hard to argue with a straight face that these projects are financially essential right now when we’re seeing a reduction in production,” said Erin Zwiener, a district representative in the Texas legislature who represents a portion of the Texas Hill Country. “I think a lot of folks are assuming that it will suddenly reverse one day, but I suspect we’re looking at a much longer term issue.”

The Railroad Commission has accepted Kinder Morgan’s claim that the pipeline will not have a significant impact on the golden-cheeked warbler.

From the 2021 National Ethics Bowl. Prepared by

Robert Boyd Skipper: Chair, Case Preparation Committee
Robert A. Currie
Deni Elliott
Cynthia Jones
Heather Pease