SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS NEWS: Texas Hill Country landowners fight Kinder Morgan pipeline
Posted on 01/04/2019 under Uncategorized
FREDERICKSBURG — Hank Sauer reminisces about the 18 years he’s owned these 45 acres a few miles south of Fredericksburg — hunting deer with his now-17-year-old grandson, spending holidays there with the family, and dreaming of spending the rest of his days with his wife on the land.
Until last year, the retired health care administrator, 84, lived on the property with his wife. But she suffered health problems, and the couple moved into an assisted-living facility in San Antonio.
Sauer is worried that a natural gas pipeline proposed by Houston-based Kinder Morgan, one of the largest pipeline companies in the country, will reduce his land’s value. He’d been looking to sell the property, but said he recently pulled it off the market because interest dropped off after Kinder Morgan announced the project. He was seeking to sell the land for just under $1 million.
The planned $2 billion pipeline would run 430 miles from the booming Permian Basin oil and gas field in West Texas to a location near the Houston suburb of Katy. The Permian Highway pipeline would cut through the rolling landscape of the Hill Country and Hays County, the second-fastest-growing county in Texas.
“We have no ill will toward pipelines — they’re needed. But put them somewhere where they’re not going to destroy lives and destroy people’s communities,” said Sauer, who describes himself as “very conservative.”
Kinder Morgan is surveying the possible route and lining up agreements with property owners. If the company receives the necessary permits and approvals, it wants to start construction by this fall and open the pipeline at the end of 2020. Agencies that will review the project include the Texas Railroad Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The company’s proposal — and simmering fight with landowners in the pipeline’s path — comes as pipeline operators pump billions of dollars into major projects to eliminate a shortage of pipelines to transport oil and gas from America’s largest oil field.
Pipeline companies such as Kinder Morgan can legally seize private land for their projects through eminent domain, though they’re required to fairly compensate owners for the property.
That has landowners in the Hill Country scrambling to learn their rights and figure out what they can do to either reroute or stop the pipeline. Kurt Sauer, one of Hank’s sons and a lawyer, said he finds it hard to understand why the state gives pipeline companies the ability to use eminent domain.
“I missed that class in law school that not only can government take your property and build a road or a pipeline but now some private companies get to take your property without considering anything, or without you getting to have any say in it whatsoever,” he said.
The company is considering a 600-foot-wide corridor for the proposed route. Allen Fore, Kinder Morgan’s vice president of public affairs, says the pipeline operator will work with landowners to potentially make route adjustments and find ways to address their concerns.
“If folks are saying, ‘We don’t want it at all — get it off the property,’ we’re going to try to find a way to do that,” Fore said. “But we have to find some place for it to go.”
Luke Ellis, an Austin-based attorney specializing in eminent domain issues, represents landowners potentially impacted by Kinder Morgan’s Permian Highway pipeline.
Because a pipeline easement is permanent, he said, “the property owner gets one chance to get this right, and by get this right, I mean get the best easement terms possible and get the highest amount of just compensation possible.”
“The framework that’s been created both by the Texas Legislature and Texas courts makes it very difficult to win a challenge that would stop the pipeline company entirely,” he said. Kinder Morgan has chosen its route because, despite going through some rapidly expanding areas like Hays County, he added, it’s the most direct path to the pipeline’s endpoint.
Old pipes, new route
Further east, near Stonewall, Andrew Sansom manages the Hershey Ranch, a property that he has poured decades of work into, including restoring a historic 161-year-old home on the land after it burned down in 2003, leaving only the limestone walls standing.
He’s cleared cedar off 1,000 acres of the 1,565-acre property, some by hand, other parts with controlled burns. If Kinder Morgan builds the pipeline, it would clear a 5,400-foot section up to 125 feet wide on the ranch, leaving a 50-foot permanent easement for maintenance.
An old pipeline route that Kinder Morgan’s proposed one follows is still visible, a path through the rolling hills with trees starting to overgrow it. While the steel pipeline — which wasn’t one of the Kinder Morgan’s — was mostly removed in 2012, some sections of it lie above ground near a corral. Other parts are still in the ground but exposed at a low point near the edge of the property, where a creek runs over a portion of the abandoned line.
In the past five years, Sansom — a former executive director of the Nature Conservancy and Texas Parks and Wildlife — fought to get a new power transmission line routed away from the abandoned pipeline easement.
“I was beaten up because of the power line, so when the pipeline deal came, I went, ‘I just can’t believe this,’” Sansom said. He called the proposed pipeline “another assault on one of the most iconic regions of the state.”
Kinder Morgan, which owns or operates 26,000 miles of pipelines throughout Texas, has contacted the owners of nearly all the 1,070 properties across the 16 counties the Permian Highway would cut through, Fore said. Gillespie County, where Fredericksburg is located, has the most landowners potentially affected by the pipeline, at 185.
Kinder Morgan already owns a pipeline running through the region — the 24-inch Hill Country natural gas pipeline, which the Permian Highway follows from West Texas to northwest Kimble County. There, the Permian Highway would split off and move further south, ending less than 40 miles southwest of the endpoint of the company’s Hill Country pipeline. While the Hill Country pipeline passes through northeast Gillespie County, the Permian Highway would cross the southern half of the county.