Wimberley resident Alice Anderson was in Kyle the evening of Feb. 12, at a meeting held by Kinder Morgan, to demonstrate her opposition to the company’s plan to lay a 42-inch natural gas pipeline across Hays County.
“First of all, it’s an obsolete technology,” said Anderson, who has joined with neighbors in the Rolling Oaks subdivision to form Clean Energy Now Texas. “Second, the environmental damage—you can’t buy damaged environment. And if an accident were to happen on the recharge zone of the aquifer, I can’t imagine the kind of danger and damage that could do to our drinking water.”
The project is called the Permian Highway Pipeline, and it is a $2 billion undertaking by one of the largest pipeline companies in North America. If built as planned, it will carry natural gas through 16 counties in Texas and affect hundreds of landowners, including 82 in Hays County.
Much of the controversy around the pipeline stems from the company’s potential use of eminent domain to take property even if the landowner objects, but many Hays County residents are also worried about the risk of disruption to the aquifer, to sensitive environmental features such as Jacob’s Well and to nearby endangered species habitats.
State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, who was at the event in Kyle, said she shares Anderson’s environmental concerns.
“Our aquifers are so porous, our rock is so porous that our aquifers recharge quickly, and there’s very little filtration of the water down to them,” Zwiener said. “That means we’re a lot more vulnerable to contamination.”
Zwiener plans to file a bill that would strengthen oversight of pipelines and provide specific protections for environmentally sensitive areas such as Hays County by placing limits on what a pipeline can carry—a topic raised by residents both in Kyle on Feb. 13 and at Kinder Morgan’s meeting Feb. 12 in Wimberley.
“To me the thing that was very disturbing is that they’re talking about it being a gas line, but they’re able to switch that over to moving anything they want at some point,” Wimberley resident Jaime Sterling said. “It could be oil in 10 years.”
That is not entirely the case, according to Allen Fore, vice president for public affairs at Kinder Morgan. Though the pipeline might one day be converted to carry something other than natural gas, and the state of Texas actually encourages companies to repurpose pipelines, it would be in more than 10 years—the company has 15-20 year contracts on the Permian Highway Pipeline.
“I’ve heard absolute lies and falsehoods that we could turn this thing to crude overnight,” he said. “That’s preposterous, lies and falsehoods. And I use that harsh language because that’s what it is. Those are scare tactics, and they’re not true.”
Zwiener hopes to get Kinder Morgan to commit to carrying only natural gas in the Permian Highway Pipeline in perpetuity, but either way, she will include rules around converting pipelines in new legislation.
“Regardless of what they do, I’m going to be bringing a bill to limit the transportation of [oil and hazardous] liquids over karst-based aquifers,” Zwiener said. “We’re just too vulnerable.”
Having spoken previously about how little is required from pipeline companies when it comes to public process, Zwiener noted in addition to her own bill, she is supporting eminent domain reform legislation filed in January by state Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. Known as House Bill 991 and Senate Bill 421, the bills would require a public meeting and additional protection for landowners.
“Other major infrastructure goes through public, transparent processes,” Zwiener said. “And any time the state’s power of eminent domain is being used to take landowner rights from Texans, we need that transparent and public process.”
Fore, who attended both the Feb. 12 and Feb. 13 meetings, pointed out the company is conducting open houses even though it is not required to do so.
The meetings are meant to be “a way to get detailed answers to specific questions,” Fore said.
A number of people at both events, however, did not like the format. There was no presentation at either meeting, much to the disappointment of some attendees. Instead, the company stationed employees at exhibits around the edge of the room and ran several animations depicting pipeline building and operations.
“I think this was fine for an icebreaker, but I wanted more followup,” Sterling said. “Instead of this divide and conquer idea, and nobody really being able to hear what somebody is asking, I wanted more information.”
But not everyone was surprised.
“Actually, I did expect this, because I know how it works,” said Ted Burton, whose family owns a ranch on the planned pipeline route. “They were not going to have a seated audience with a microphone asking questions.”
Burton was one of several residents at the meeting in Wimberley who at one point stood in the middle of the room and loudly asked for someone from the company to answer questions publicly. A few people voiced inquiries, but when no one stepped forward, after several moments of chanting, “We want to hear from you,” the moment passed.
“This is an age-old public relations strategy,” Burton said. “You have stations, and that way there can be no galvanization—the crowd can’t get together.”
Fore said he was aware that not everyone was happy, but that all the Kinder Morgan representatives were people directly involved with the Permian Highway Pipeline project.
“There’s never a perfect format because there are pros and cons to every type of format that you do,” Fore said.
Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell, who hosted a meeting in January that included a panel of experts and a public comment period, attended Kinder Morgan’s Wimberley event and said he understood why people did not like the style of the meeting.
“I’m just a little disappointed that we didn’t have a little more opportunity for some dialogue, but it is their meeting, and they choose how to do these things,” Shell said. “It doesn’t mean that we can’t still take something from it. It’s important that we’re here; it’s important for us to show our concern.”
Shell collected written questions and comments from attendees at the Jan. 29 event, which have been posted online. Fore told Community Impact Newspaper that Kinder Morgan will respond to each one in writing.
Kinder Morgan’s next meetings are Feb. 21-22 in Blanco and Fredericksburg, but Hays County Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said at the Feb. 13 event that she is planning another community meeting with experts who can answer questions March 6 at Hays High School.
“It’s not going to be like tonight, where they’re not having any kind of a presentation,” Ingalsbe said. “[The meeting is] just for people to have an opportunity to speak and voice their concerns.”
Both Fore and Shell said representatives from Kinder Morgan are also expected to appear in the next few months at the Hays County Commissioners Court, but no date has been decided.