Austin (KXAN) — Construction is already beginning on the Midland-area portion of 430-mile, Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline that will cross the state of Texas. But as construction progresses on the western side of the state, the city of Austin shared concerns Wednesday about the Hill Country portion of the pipeline, which the city believes could have impacts for water quality — both at Barton Springs and for the Austin-area.

Kinder Morgan, the Houston-based company constructing the pipeline, has separated this Permian Highway Pipeline into five sections and the company told KXAN Thursday that the western phase near Midland has already started preliminary construction. The company expects to start construction on the eastern portion prior to October. In the next few months, Kinder Morgan plans to start construction on the other sections of the pipeline –which includes the Hill Country.

“The takeaways are that the proposed pipeline path crosses the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone in an area known to provide water to Barton Springs here in Austin,” said Chris Herrington, an environmental officer with the city of Austin. “So even though the pipeline is not in Austin, anything that could come from the construction or operation of the pipeline has the potential to impact the quality of water in the Edwards Aquifer and then Barton Springs.” Herrington helped compile a report from Austin’s Watershed Protection Department to Austin City Council.

The pipeline will not pass through the city of Austin, but the city staff members who compiled the report worried that water flow could lead contamination from the pipeline to spread all the way to Barton Springs.

A map of the potential pathway of the proposed Permian Highway Pipeline across the Edwards Aquifer in Hays County. Image from the August 28 memo from the City of Austin Watershed Protection Department.

In June, Austin City council passed a resolution directing the Watershed Protection Department to look into the potential water quality impacts of the pipeline.

“There could be known impacts during the construction as they actually trench through the aquifer to lay the pipeline itself, and there are other potential impacts that could arise during operation of the pipeline,” Herrington said. “For example, if the pipeline was to rupture and leak out any hydrocarbons, that could potentially impact water quality. There are a lot of unknowns that we don’t have information from the pipeline company [about] at this point that, so we’re assessing what those potentials could be, based on the information available to us.”

The city’s report noted that existing laws are not enough to ensure that “no adverse environmental consequences will occur as a result of the construction and operation” of the Permian Highway Pipeline. The report noted a lack of publicly available information from Kinder Morgan — both about the route of the pipeline and about the environmental impacts of the pipeline — which the city says limited its ability to calculate potential risk for future contamination.

File Barton Springs Pool downtown view pool Austin
Austin’s Barton Springs Pool. KXAN Photo.

To be clear, the city of Austin’s current drinking water supply does not come from the Edwards Aquifer, however, that aquifer does supply drinking water for nearly two million Texans.

But the concerns are not just over this pipeline. The report noted that “successful completion of the PHP may attract other pipelines to this area.”

If contaminants from the pipeline were to reach Barton Springs in a large enough concentration, it is possible that the contaminants could negatively impact federally protected species that live in that area, the report noted. Austin’s Watershed Protection Department suggested that the city share their concerns with state and federal regulatory entities, asking them to seek more information from Kinder Morgan.

“We would certainly like to see the information necessary to enable us to make a decision before that construction moves across the Edwards Aquifer,” Herrington said.

The report acknowledges that currently in Texas’ Permian Basin, there is a lack of pipelines to transport natural gas– a byproduct of oil production– to the Gulf Coast to be exported. Consequently, the report notes, that a large amount of that natural gas is being flared off, which sends greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“We certainly recognize that there’s a need to deliver those hydrocarbons from West Texas down to the Gulf Coast, so this pipeline wouldn’t’ satisfy all that potential need,” Herrington said. “So it clearly could set a precedent for future pipelines to follow a similar route across those environmentally sensitive areas.”

The report notes that the Permian Highway Pipeline is exempt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Edward’s Aquifer protection rules.

“What’s incredibly frustrating is that we’re finding that pipelines are exempt from rules that nobody else is exempt from,” said Austin City Council Member Paige Ellis, who worked in an environmental consulting firm prior to taking office. “If you’re building a large road or a large construction project, whether it’s public or private, you have to have a vast public involvement process, what’s really unfortunate is we’re not seeing that with pipelines, they’re exempted from it, from TCEQ’s Edwards Aquifer rules, and that’s just something I find really concerning.”

Going forward, she hopes the city of Austin can partner with other local governments in the region to share information they have about the pipeline and its potential impacts.

“But we also need to be very vocal about the way the Texas Railroad Commission — which by the way does not monitor railroads — the way that they have exempted pipeline’s from TCEQ’s rules on void mitigation– we need to let them know that this is not acceptable and that they need to be following the same rules that anyone else would need to follow because it’s a matter of protecting our endangered species and the health of our air and water quality,” Ellis said.

Permian Highway Pipeline_Overview Map from Kinder Morgan
Permian Highway Pipeline Overview Map from Kinder Morgan in May 2019.

The pipeline is still coming along on schedule, Kinder Morgan says

The pipeline has sparked fear and frustration from some landowners, environmental groups, and local governments, citing both environmental concerns and worries about the authority of Kinder Morgan to set the pipeline route and exercise eminent domain. These groups have tried to stall the pipeline’s construction through a series of legal challenges.

But Kinder Morgan told KXAN Thursday that they are still on track to have the Permian Highway Service in operation by the fourth quarter of 2020.

Allen Fore, Kinder Morgan’s Vice President of Public Affairs, explained that his company has received the necessary federal permits for construction on the western portion of the pipeline (which is why they have already begun construction there), but the company is still waiting for some other federal permits to be approved –including the permits for the Hill Country portion of the project.

Fore explained that the company must have those federal permits and the landowner acquisition processes complete before pipeline construction can begin in each area.

As for the Hill country construction, Fore said that all the pipes for the pipeline in that section has been delivered to an area in Blanco County. Kinder Morgan has been working with counties in the hill country on the specific details of road crossing permits — Fore said that Hays County approved Kinder Morgan’s road crossing permits recently.

“We do have land acquisition that is still ongoing in Hays County and Blanco County, Caldwell County, it is going very well, but we need to be 100 percent,” Fore said. “But we’re on schedule, we’re on target.”

In regards to the city of Austin’s report about the Permian Highway Pipeline impacts, Fore said that he is disappointed the city did not contact Kinder Morgan in the process of conducting their report.

“I wish they would have reached out to us, there’s a lot of information in there that I don’t know where it came from,” Fore sais. “Whatever sources they used, they didn’t use the source that’s most knowledgeable about the project, and that’s the folks that are building it, and they didn’t try to reach out to us.”

Fore is aware that Austin City Council passed a resolution opposing the pipeline.

“We understand that and we certainly want to work with the city of Austin as much as possible,” he said.

But, he noted, the city of Austin doesn’t have a regulatory role in this pipeline project.

Fore pointed out that there are multiple pipelines which pass through Austin’s city limits.

“I would ask, how have those pipelines contaminated the aquifer?” Fore continued.

The city’s report states that four natural gas pipelines exist over the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer. The reports also noted that these pipelines are “substantially smaller” than the proposed Permian Highway Pipeline.

Regarding the city of Austin’s claims that there is not much publicly available information on the Permian Highway Pipeline, Fore says that the information is out there and the parties who need to know have it.

On the Kinder Morgan website, anyone can find an image of the general route of the pipeline, he said. For each of the counties who are involved, Kinder Morgan has provided them with a map that has the specificity of their choosing. Some counties have asked for maps that allow you to zoom in and see detail down to the GPS Coordinate level.

Fore said that since Kinder Morgan set the pipeline route, the company has made 160 adjustments to the route based on the needs of individual landowners.

“The individual landowners know about those routes, the counties know about those routes, so the information is out there,” he said. “We haven’t provided that information to the city of Austin because they have no jurisdictional responsibility for this project. “

KXAN asked Fore if, given this memo from the city of Austin and some of the concerns expressed by parties in the legal challenges to the pipeline, Kinder Morgan would consider making the environmental analysis of the pipeline route or the complete, detailed map of the pipeline publicly available online.

“Well, our first obligations are to the agencies that review this project, and we’re providing the information to them, we have to secure our permits, we have to go through regulatory processes, not what others want to see, but what the regulatory agencies ask us for,” Fore said.

He added that the federal regulatory agencies that Kinder Morgan submits their permits to have the discretion to release parts of those permits once they’re secured.

“But I also think that to suggest that providing information to opposition groups — and the city of Austin too opposed the project, clearly unanimously opposed the project — is going to make a difference in what those folks think about our project I think is being pretty naive,” Fore said.

Legal battles over the pipeline

The city of Kyle enacted a local ordinance which requires, among other things, that natural gas pipelines which intersect with city property or rights-of-way need to be a minimum of 13 feet deep.

“Those kinds of things are our way of making the project more difficult for Kinder Morgan while simultaneously protecting our residents,” Kyle mayor, Travis Mitchell said to KXAN in July. He said that the city is opposing the pipeline “using practically any and all means.”

In July, Kinder Morgan filed a lawsuit against the city of Kyle in response to this ordinance, saying the city’s ordinance violates both federal and state law.

Hays County and Travis Audobon Society have filed a notice of intent to sue Kinder Morgan, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The notice calls for a full, independent environmental impact study. It also claims Kinder Morgan did not obtain the necessary federal permits to work near endangered species like the golden-cheeked warbler and sensitive environmental features like the Edwards Aquifer.

Kinder Morgan explained to KXAN that they have done environmental analysis on this route.

As part of that process, the company first conducted a review of a potential pipeline route remotely, from a “desktop view,” looking through publicly available information about the area. Then, they contracted with a Houston-based environmental consulting group to perform environmental analysis on the ground for that route.

“We are following the law and if that’s enacted by regulators and legislators then we will follow the law,” explained Allen Fore, Kinder Morgan’s Vice President of Public Affairs, in an interview with KXAN in July.

On June 26, a Travis County District Court Judge dismissed a lawsuit from the city of Kyle, Hays County, and three landowners against Kinder Morgan and the Texas Railroad Commission. The plaintiffs in that suit argued that the Railroad Commission had not carried out the public oversight with Kinder Morgan required by the Texas Constitution. The entities suing Kinder Morgan were frustrated that the company only reached out to communicate with the public about their plans after the route for the pipeline had already been set.

READ MORE: Judge dismisses lawsuit related to pipeline planned to run through parts of the Hill Country

While the judge dismissed that lawsuit, she did express worry over the ability for gas utilities in Texas to make plans for pipelines and exercise eminent domain with little public oversight.

The judge said that it was not her role to rule on the lack of oversight that companies like Kinder Morgan have and it’s up to state lawmakers to decide on that. The Texas legislature will not reconvene until 2021, at which time the pipeline is expected to already be operational.

About the Permian Highway Pipeline

The Permian Highway Pipeline will cost an estimated $2 billion for the gas companies involved. It will be a 42-inch, buried pipeline designed to move as much as 2.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. The pipeline will pass through sixteen Texas counties and link up with other pipelines along the way, providing natural gas for municipalities including those in the Hill Country.

The Permian Highway Pipeline does not pass through the city of Austin but will go to the south of Austin and pass through Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays Counties. The city of Kyle is the most populous community along the entire route.

A Kinder Morgan map of the intended route of the Permian Highway Pipeline through Hays County. Map from Kinder Morgan dated May of 2019.

Opponents of the pipeline show support for Austin’s report

Travis Mitchell, the mayor of the city of Kyle, told KXAN Thursday, “I am very grateful to the city of Austin for their partnership and support in our battle to bring accountability to the Kinder Morgan project,”

Mitchell learned from the report that Kinder Morgan is not required to build the pipeline to the TCEQ’s standards for the Edwards Aquifer.

“That’s very alarming to me,” Mitchell said. “We need substantial reform in the pipeline routing and construction process.”

The Texas Real Estate Advocacy and Defense Coalition, a group who has supported some of the legal efforts challenging the pipeline, said they agree with the city of Austin’s findings in the report as well.

“While Kinder Morgan has kept any studies they have done private, we should assume that they already know about the major potential risks to our water supply and ecosystem,” TREAD said in a statement.

TREAD, who works with Hays County, said that they are still waiting for the 60 day period after filing their intent to sue Kinder Morgan over the pipeline to decide whether they will actually sue over the environmental impacts fo the pipeline.

TREAD says that while Kinder Morgan begins construction of the pipeline elsewhere in Texas while some Hill Country residents “are still waiting on their condemnation cases to be decided. “

“We hoped they would show more respect for landowners who are in limbo, but it seems that they are trying to turn up the temperature,” TREAD said. “This is a great example of why there should be a public routing approval process. “

KXAN’s Alyssa Goard is working on an in-depth report on this water quality impact analysis.