New report outlines how to preserve the region’s beauty while opening the door to energy companies

TRI COUNTY AREA – The Respect Big Bend coalition released a new report last week that maps out how the tri-county region should approach future energy developments in the area. The project outlines the ways in which the Big Bend region could open itself up to oil, gas and solar investments while maintaining its natural beauty and character.

That energy companies are going to expand into the region is a given, the report reads. As the world’s population grows, there will be more demand for energy and West Texas – being one of the most “energy-intensive” places in the nation – will become increasingly attractive to energy developers.

In the report, Respect Big Bend argues that there’s no collective group steering energy policy in the region and that pivotal decisions about oil, gas and solar development are left up to energy companies and private landowners.

Not all land is equal though, according to the report. In the study, Respect Big Bend pinpointed “areas of lower conservation value,” that can be given up to energy developers in order to spare the region’s more desirable land. The report writes, “The hypothesis underlying this approach is that, by identifying low-impact places where energy development might go, one also gains leverage to secure high conservation value and ‘no-go’ areas.”

In order to determine which land is most suitable for energy development, Respect Big Bend convened a council of 14 community members, from county judges to landowners, that decided what the region’s conservation priorities should be. This “stakeholder advisory group” also worked alongside scientists and employees of energy companies to develop these priorities.

“The goal of the stakeholder advisory group was to develop a set of values that focused on the region’s way of life and natural resources, while maximizing the benefits of responsible energy development,” said Billy Tarrant, associate director of stewardship services for the Borderlands Research Institute, a Respect Big Bend Coalition partner. At the top of the list were ranching heritage and property rights, followed by ecological and biological conservation, tourism and hunting, viewsheds and dark skies, quality of life and lastly, culture.

The group then mapped those values onto the land, establishing which areas would be able to host energy facilities, while at the same time having little impact on the region’s way of life. It was noted that Presidio County – where large swaths of land scored very high on the conservation value index – was particularly at risk for wind and solar energy development.

Respect Big Bend said that there has to be coordinated action between landowners and other community members in order to avoid the worst impacts of energy development in the area. Right now, there are few legal regulations in the state restricting where energy facilities can operate. “There’s really nothing you can do as a private citizen to try to influence the siting of oil and gas wells, of pipelines, of transmissions lines, of solar facilities, wind facilities. You don’t really have a tool to push back and protest with,” said Melinda Taylor, a University of Texas law professor who led the initiative.

In lieu of any legal or policy mechanism to stop energy expansion in the area, Respect Big Bend said that there has to be coordinated action between landowners and other community members in order to avoid the worst impacts of energy development in the area.

And Taylor says that private landowners do have an incentive to cooperate with one another and with the coalition. “They have a vested interest in the resources that are on their land. They care about the wildlife habit, the springs on their property. They care about the water quality of the springs. They no doubt care about their scenic views, because for them that’s one of their assets.”

However, with fewer ways to make a living off the land, these landowners often have to turn to energy companies for economic support, Taylor says. “It’s not really realistic to say don’t sign a lease with a wind developer, don’t sign a lease with an oil and gas company,” she said. “Instead, we’re giving them a roadmap for a way that they can minimize whatever the negative impacts of that development would be.”

Taylor said she also wants energy companies to use this report as a roadmap when negotiating with landowners, but acknowledges that there’s no legal mechanism ensuring that they follow these guidelines. “At the end of the day there’s no way to force the energy companies to adopt this methodology. But the hope is that just by having more information and more data, the energy companies can make decisions – with some pressure hopefully from the community members and landowners – to site their facilities in places that are less likely to negatively harm the environment and negatively harm those communities.”