In Van Horn, some locals begin to mobilize against planned pipeline

Community members gathered at the Van Horn Convention Center on Thursday evening for an informational meeting on the Saguaro Connector Pipeline, a planned natural gas pipeline that would come within roughly a mile of town. Photo by Allegra Hobbs.

VAN HORN — Dozens of community members gathered Thursday at the Van Horn Convention Center to learn more about a planned natural gas pipeline that would come within roughly a mile of city limits — a development some fear may endanger their community and negatively impact their quality of life.

ONEOK Inc.’s Saguaro Connector Pipeline would span 155 miles from the Waha Hub in Pecos County to the U.S.-Mexico border at Hudspeth County, where it would then transport natural gas under the Rio Grande for international export from Mexico. It would have the capacity to transport 2.834 billion standard cubic feet of natural gas per day.

The proposed pipeline’s intrastate journey before crossing the border takes it through Reeves, Jeff Davis, Culberson and Hudspeth counties. Concerns about environmental impacts and the disruption of archeological sites — namely the Indian Hot Springs site — have already been raised by West Texans. But the pipeline’s proximity to the town of Van Horn in Culberson County was a dominant topic of discussion at last week’s meeting, where some locals were learning details of the project for the first time. Some shouted their objections during the meeting, wondering aloud why they’d been unaware of the project.

The meeting was hosted by activist groups including The Property Rights and Pipeline Center and Earthworks, who expounded on the potential negative impacts of such a project — harmful emissions, and even ruptures and explosions. Lawyers were on hand to explain landowners’ rights to those whose property is in the path of the pipeline — a situation in which the pipeline company is able to assert eminent domain. Yard signs and bumper stickers protesting the pipeline were laid out on a table for attendees to take home.

Van Horn native Cody Davis, Local Emergency Planning Committee chairman for the county, expressed concern about emergency preparedness in the small, fairly remote town. If all goes according to plan and the necessary permits are issued, ONEOK aims to begin construction next year, with plans for the pipeline to be fully operational in 2025. Davis is tasked with writing emergency plans for the county — a lengthy process he fears he will be unable to complete in time for the pipeline’s construction.

“I have less than a year to write a plan that’s going to involve peoples’ lives and property,” he said.

“We’ve got a sheriff’s department that’s got six deputies and the sheriff,” he said. “We don’t have the capabilities, we don’t have the resources — we just don’t.”

Davis said he plans to oppose the pipeline’s construction near Van Horn. His cousin, Manuela Carrasco, said she would do everything within her power to oppose the project. She said she feared the adverse health effects of emissions — her husband has asthma, she said, and suffers from kidney disease. 

“I’m worried about the effects of it, the possible effects of it,” she said. “I’m not to the point where I’m going to be panicking, but at the same time, I don’t need to tempt that as a fate. We don’t need to play around.”

A recent report from Inside Climate News and the Texas Tribune revealed that West Texas natural gas operators were releasing tons of excess emissions into the air amid the June heatwave. 

In response to a request for comment regarding community concerns, ONEOK spokesperson Brad Borror stated that the company is “committed to the safe and reliable operation of our pipelines in the communities where we operate.”

The company is currently awaiting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to construct the border facilities necessary to transport the natural gas beneath the Rio Grande. That two-part permitting process — seeking FERC authorization and a “presidential permit” — applies only to the roughy 1,000 feet of pipeline that crosses the border.

Borror said that the FERC process “includes a forum for stakeholders to provide input,” and that impacted landowners had been contacted by the company.

But most of the pipeline — all but the 1,000 feet under review by FERC — falls entirely within the state of Texas, thus falling under the jurisdiction of the Texas Railroad Commission. The intrastate portion of the pipeline does not require approval or permitting from the federal government. 

Towards the end of the meeting, one attendee stood up and asked if they had a chance at opposing the pipeline’s presence near their community. Lori Simmons, an organizer with the Property Rights and Pipeline Center, noted that upwards of 50 people were in the convention center that evening.

“Y’all are not a small group,” she said. “This is a large group, and y’all are loud.”