Geography gave Presidio and Ojinaga, Mexico a distinct developmental advantage early in the history of the two cities. In fact, La Junta de los Rios, where the Rio Conchos and Rio Grande merge, is believed by archaeologists to be one of the oldest, continually cultivated and occupied locations in the Americas. Abundance of water in the midst of the vast Chihuahuan Desert meant food and culture, and, eventually, business; explorers and indigenous peoples were drawn to La Junta.
In its modern history, Presidio has discovered geography to be a more complex dynamic affecting life on the border. Proximity to Mexico has provided the benefits of commerce, including tourism and industrial trade, but being removed from larger national infrastructures like Interstate highways, pipelines, rail and ports, has had a limiting effect on economic vitality.
Neighboring communities in the Trans-Pecos, for example, Marfa, Alpine, Fort Davis, and Balmorhea are supplied with natural gas. Their supplier, however, West Texas Gas, found the construction of a natural gas pipeline to Presidio to not be profitable because of insufficient demand to justify the cost and maintenance of the line.
“In general, I think as far as economic development of Presidio is concerned, it is the very thing we need, the missing component we’ve never had,” said Brad Newton, Executive Director of the Presidio Municipal Development District. “We missed out on manufacturing because of a lack of natural gas. We missed out on green houses because of lack of natural gas. We’ve just missed out.”
Presidio’s situation as a municipality with regards to natural gas energy supplies has placed it at odds with various interest groups opposing the new Trans-Pecos Pipeline. The 143 mile, 42 inch, underground line is projected to move 1.7 billion cubic feet of gas daily into Mexico from the Waha Hub outside of Fort Stockton. In an agreement with the pipeline’s builder and operator, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), Presidio has the right to tap the line and buy natural gas after it has contracted with a provider to build out infrastructure into the city.
“I don’t think there’s any way to accurately estimate how important this is to the economic future of Presidio,” said Jake Giesbrecht, a Presidio businessman who is the owner of Bullet Transport Services. “But it will change things and create jobs. Cheaper energy will allow us to attract manufacturing industries, and larger businesses that make their decisions based upon the costs of energy to produce their products.”
The majority of the natural gas, however, will be sold to Mexico, where supply continues to outstrip demand. About 80 percent of the country’s natural gas supplies are imported from the U.S. and by the end of 2015, according to the Congressional Research Service, American pipelines are expected to deliver 7 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily across the border.
Demand for cheaper energy has risen in Mexico as global free trade agreements are signed and multi-national corporations relocate to the country to set up manufacturing operations. The demand has caused the country to import more expensive liquefied natural gas at four times market rates at two LNG ports on the Pacific Coast and one on the Gulf.
A shortage of natural gas caused industries around Guadalajara last year to shut down 45 days of production.
There is not, however, sufficient pipeline or generating infrastructure and power plants rely on dirty coal, diesel, and wood when geothermal and hydroelectric are unavailable. Mexico has a huge investment to make not just in pipelines but also in converting power plants to natural gas generation.
Public resistance to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline to sell gas south of the border has been partly founded on Mexico’s abundance of energy. Why, it is frequently asked, is the Texas environment put at risk to deliver natural gas to a nation that has its own rich supplies? As recently as 2014, the country’s national oil company, PEMEX, had conducted test drilling at 29 sites in Ojinaga, across from Presidio, and estimated that up to 18 trillion cubic meters of natural gas were available for recovery using hydraulic fracturing.
Mexico recently revised federal energy laws to allow multi-national companies to explore and develop resources like the Burgos Basin in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the Ojinaga and Ceballos Basins. However, lower per barrel prices of oil and inexpensive U.S. natural gas supplies have meant slow development of the Mexican resources.
“Gas demand grew quicker than expected because of low gas prices in North America. All of a sudden, industries in Mexico wanted to take advantage of the cheap gas you are seeing and they want to expand their industries,” Tania Ortiz Mena, the vice president of IEnova, a natural-gas infrastructure operator in Mexico, told McClatchy Newspapers. “Pemex was not prepared to meet the unexpected and growing demand. The real solution is building more pipelines from the U.S. And of course, the long-term solution is to produce more gas in Mexico.”
Global geo-politics and economics, however, mean little to the residents of the Big Bend region where the pipeline will be constructed. The line will cross remote ranches and scenic countryside that is proudly referred to by locals as part of the “last frontier,” a landscape and eco-system that has not yet been touched by the ubiquitous Texas energy industry. Opponents fear environmental damage and operational hazards like explosions, which, they insist, are not worth the temporary construction jobs, ad valorem taxes, or the natural gas supply for Presidio.
The pipeline project has left much of the Trans-Pecos region emotionally and intellectually divided. The Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) has filed motions to intervene on Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Docket CP15-500 (and CP15-503, the proposed Comanche Trail Pipeline) to challenge the project based upon impermissible segmentation, which is the practice of breaking up, or segmenting a larger project into a series of small components, in an attempt to avoid environmental and cultural scrutiny required by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).
By isolating the project into two separately permitted activities (CP15-500, the proposed Trans-Pecos Pipeline, and CP15-503, the proposed Comanche Trail Pipeline), and by further segmenting each of the aforementioned into a claimed “jurisdictional” (the nominal 1000 or so feet at the border crossing), and claimed “non-jurisdictional” segments (the larger segments of the pipelines from the Waha Market Hub near Coyanosa, to the border crossings near Presidio-Ojinaga, and San Elizario respectively), the company is suggesting the larger environmental and cultural impact of the project as a whole should be ignored.
The motions to intervene request that FERC do its job – by order, rule, and precedent, the project’s impact as a whole must be considered under NEPA guidelines – impermissible segmentation would preclude this.
In an attempt to clear up confusion regarding the project, ETP conducted two town hall meetings in Presidio and Alpine. The results of those proceedings were decidedly mixed. While ETP has insisted to residents the pipeline will be safe, its persuasion is set against the backdrop of a June explosion on one of its natural gas lines near Cuero, Texas.
Rick Smith, project engineer for the Trans-Pecos pipeline, refused to answer questions from Presidio or Alpine residents about the Cuero incident.
“That is still under investigation right now,” he said. “It’s just not complete so we will not address the Cuero situation tonight. It’s not resolved and as soon as the investigation’s over and filed with Railroad Commission, we will be happy to disseminate the information through the Railroad Commission. We want to make sure we understand completely what happened in that incident. I know that’s on a lot of people’s minds tonight but we won’t be taking questions on that.”
Smith also refused to talk to reporters the following night at a town hall meeting in Alpine. Transparency by ETP has been a major complaint of the pipeline’s opponents and when Smith and other executives made statements at the Alpine meeting that prompted skepticism, some audience members raised red flags to point them out, and intensified the emotions surrounding the project.
An Alpine elected official, who refused to be named, ended up calling opponents of the project communists, according to a quote published in the Big Bend Gazette. “As an observer at the Trans-Pecos Pipeline town hall, I was ashamed of my hometown. I was raised to be courteous and respectful to guests. The Big Bend Conservation Alliance acted like a mob of communists, with hissing, booing, catcalls, and waving red flags. Ugly mob actions have no place in West Texas.”
Alyce Santoro, who attended the meeting, publicly posted on her Facebook page her response to the anonymous official: “So your anonymous source thinks we should welcome the people who have come to take and despoil our land for their own profit? I’ve got a whole bunch news for him or her: it wasn’t just BBCA members who were raising red flags Wednesday night. “Mob of communists”? Oh, PLEASE. Your anonymous source seems to have no idea what it means when RED FLAGS ARE RAISED (I’ll attach a link in case he or she is unclear on this)? You know what really WAS in poor taste? ETP assuming that their contradictory, disingenuous, and outright false “information” belonged in a “respectful and courteous” presentation to members of our community. Taking the recent explosion of a 3-year-old 42″ ETP pipeline in Cuero off the table for discussion was an outrageously bold attempt to play down the risks of their proposed project.”
Public resistance can, and has stopped projects of this nature but the Trans-Pecos pipeline appears poised to overcome opposition. Selling natural gas to Mexico will be argued as a method to sustain employment in Texas energy production and provide ad valorem taxes to communities along the pipeline’s route.
And Presidio hopes it will begin a transformation.
“One of the things where Presidio is different from in this part of the world is that we want to deal with the world economy,” Brad Newton said. “We want to promote the trade route from the Pacific Coast of Mexico and the Topalobampo deepwater port to Midland and on to Dallas and beyond. We are looking at business from an international perspective. We have to accommodate imports and exports with our number one trade partner Mexico. We need all the cards dealt to us to be an international player. And that includes natural gas.”
Newton doesn’t speak for everyone in Presidio. But the business community of Presidio appears to support the Trans-Pecos line, and its potential to once more make La Junta de los Rios an important location where people, cultures, and economies come together for prosperity.