Packed courtroom as Kinder Morgan pipeline lawsuit arguments begin

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — People packed a third-floor courtroom in downtown Austin Tuesday as a judge heard arguments related to a pipeline proposed to run through parts of the Hill Country. 

Kinder Morgan, the pipeline company, and the Texas Railroad Commission are trying to dismiss a lawsuit related to the state’s eminent domain process. Hays County, the City of Kyle and three landowners sued them, concerned about oversight. The plaintiffs are hoping the judge rules that a process needs to be put in place to ensure oversight just as other industries in Texas (the electric industry, for example) have when it comes to new development. They also feel that other routes would be more appropriate for the pipeline to go through. 

The Permian Highway Pipeline would carry natural gas from West Texas to Katy, and Kinder Morgan and others have been working for months to determine the exact route.

The courtroom Tuesday was packed and standing-room-only most of the day, a majority of the people in the room appeared to be concerned Hays County residents whose audible laughter, groans, and gasps could be heard in response to the court proceedings. 

At issue, in this case, is not just to this specific pipeline, but also what oversight generally the Texas Railroad Commission should have over pipeline development under the state constitution.

A natural gas company wants to build a new pipeline through one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the state. KXAN's Gary Cooper is live with what we can expect.

The parties involved appear to have very different views about how the discussion around this pipeline is going. 

Kinder Morgan maintains they’ve been trying to go above and beyond to reach out to community members and make adjustments to their pipeline plans accordingly.  

“The communication process is extensive from our standpoint,” said Allen Fore, Vice President of  Kinder Morgan. “We have had hundreds of meetings with elected officials, over 1,000 meetings and follow up phone calls and conversations with landowners. Letters written out, public notices put in newspapers, extensive communication in a wide variety of ways.”

But the plaintiffs on this lawsuit object because all this community outreach by Kinder Morgan happened after the plan for the pipeline was already set.

The city of Kyle and Hays counties testified in court that they feel the company should be taking more input from them. 

“The process is fundamentally flawed, the Texas constitution compels the Railroad Commission to have some kind of oversight over companies like Kinder Morgan and other common carriers,” said Travis Mitchell, the mayor of Kyle.

“But the way we experience Kinder Morgan, there was no oversight, there were no public hearings prior to the establishment of the right-of-way and the route and there were no environmental impact studies prior to establishing that route,” Mitchell continued. “That’s wrong, they need to engage us before they determine the route so that we can give them the feedback they need to make a decision that’s in the best interest for all.”

He acknowledged that Kinder Morgan follows Texas law as it is currently interpreted by the railroad commission. But he is hoping the judge finds that the railroad commission — and by extension Kinder Morgan — have not been following the Texas Constitution. 

Mitchell said that since the city learned of the pipeline plans they have been trying to talk with Kinder Morgan about adjusting the route in a way that would be less harmful, but he says to this point ” we have not felt that they were receptive to our efforts.”

“Many of our residents didn’t even believe that the city and the county had no knowledge of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, but that is actually what happened, they planned their routes, before ever having even a small conversation with us,” Mitchell said.

“If I tried to put a road in without having conversations with the people that I was going to affect, I would lose my job like that,” he said, giving a snap of his fingers. 

Caitlyn Strickland, the Development Services Director for Hays County, said that she learned the pipeline would cut through the county from a newspaper article in the fall of 2018. 

Strickland was not aware of anyone contacting her or her colleagues in Hays County for their input, though defense attorneys said that Kinder Morgan has reached out to four Hays County Commissioners and the former Hays County Judge. 

Kinder Morgan explained Thursday that this Permian Highway Pipeline is far from the only pipeline in Hays County or in the Hill Country. But the public entities suing Kinder Morgan believe what is different about this pipeline is that it crosses through many existing and planned developments for their growing area. 

The City of Kyle and Hays County testified that they worry about the impact of the pipeline on several developments in their areas. This includes an area they refer to as Six Creeks which is situated west of the bend in Old Stage Coach Road and extending to the Blanco River. Kyle and Hays County leaders testified Tuesday that a resort is planned for that location as well as commercial and residential development. Some houses have already been built in that area.

The intended route of the pipeline wouldn’t require any of the existing homes to be dug up, government leaders testified in court, but they believe it would force developers to change their plans for that land which have been years in the making. 

“It will change infrastructure planning, it will change the way developers want to use their property,” Strickland testified. 

“It will affect the tax base by not allowing us to bring in more commercial development along with some higher priced homes,” she said, noting that property in Hays County is worth more when it’s closer to the river. 

“It’s the most jaw-dropping property you’ve ever seen,” Travis Mitchell said. “This could be a jewel in the city of Kyle forever.”

Strickland said that until they know where the pipeline is going, the county and the city cannot finalize plans for that development. She added that Kinder Morgan has not indicated yet where they would move the pipeline. 

“I have shared these concerns with Kinder Morgan, almost to tears,” Mitchell testified. To his understanding through talks with Kinder Morgan, when they made their pipeline map, they didn’t know that the city had annexed the Six Creeks property.

Kinder Morgan outreach 

Kinder Morgan announced this pipeline project in September and explained that they have talked with every impacted landowner since then. In fact, the company says they have made more than 150 adjustments to their pipeline route as a result of these conversations with landowners. 

“Are there ways to improve that process? Absolutely,” said Allen Fore.  

He said that historically, Kinder Morgan gets more than 90% “mutually agreeable resolution to issues related to pipeline construction” — meaning that landowners feel fairly treated 90% of the time.  

In regards to the plaintiff’s calls for more oversight in the pipeline process, Fore says he doesn’t object to that conversation but says that’s something for the Texas legislature to take up — not the courtroom. But with the Texas legislative session now over, that type of change may not come for a while. In the meantime, Fore says his company will be as responsive as they can be to landowners. 

He explained that the process of examining potential pipeline sites begins months or even years before a project is announced, Fore explained, adding that many projects are never built because they are found to be unsafe or ineffective in the planning process. 

In his view, this pipeline is a piece of Texas’ ability to harness the energy sector.

“Natural gas that is otherwise flared and wasted, burned away is going to be not captured in this pipeline, and sent to homes and businesses in Texas,” Fore said. 

He believes many people don’t realize that there are already pipelines that run through the hill country. 

“Because once pipelines are in service, they’re underground, they’re doing their job delivering important natural gas to Texans that’s what the design of pipelines, the safest way to transport energy,” he said. 

He also noted that Kinder Morgan has surveyed “literally every inch” of this intended pipeline and made modifications accordingly. 

“So from a personal standpoint I certainly appreciate every landowner that is stepping forward today and having a discussion about this I appreciate it, we’re sensitive to that,” Fore said. “But when you look at projects like Permian Highway Pipeline, you look at individuals but you also look at the collective good of the pipeline projects provide to the state of Texas.”

Wihtout pipelines, Fore says, Texas will lose its dominance in the energy market.

Perspective from the courtroom

Several residents whose properties would be crossed by this pipeline spoke in court, most had been offered money by Kinder Morgan as an easement for their land in exchange for installing the pipeline and other supporting equipment. 

Andrew Sansom, a former director for Texas Parks and Wildlife and a current manager of the Hershey Ranch conservation effort, testified about how this pipeline would cut through the center of the property he has been charged with caring for on behalf of the Hershey family. 

Sansom explained that the Hershey family wanted this land near Stonewall protected as a preserve as it remains private land. He and his wife have put in time restoring the land, planting native wildflowers, and getting rid of invasive species, he fears the pipeline could have, “a substantial impact down the road.”

“The purpose for which this property is protected has nothing to do with money,” he testified. 

He explained that in Texas most of the land is owned by private citizens and, “the ability to protect our landscape falls entirely on private landowners.”

In this case, many of the impacted landowners have had the land in their family for generations. Lana Nance testified, she lives in Mountain City near Kyle on a 2,500-acre property that has been in her husband’s family for seven generations. The Blanco River runs along her property. 

Kinder Morgan intends to have the pipeline run through her property and also to put a valve check there. 

Nance testified that no one from Kinder Morgan or the Railroad Commission asked her the best way to cross her property with the pipeline.

Nance said that she has also worked out an agreement with the city and the county to create a bridge on their property to cross the Blanco River. She said that bridge will help people who live on the other side of the river access grocery stores and resources that they currently have to drive for 15 miles to get to. 

She testified that the pipeline plans have thrown this bridge project into question. 

“We don’t know yet if we’ll be able to get the bridge in,” she told the court. 

Nance said she was personally sued by Permian Highway LLC. 

Like other landowners who testified, she said the more than $100,000 Kinder Morgan offered her as easement didn’t address her concerns. 

“Money doesn’t buy everything you want,” she said, adding that her husband’s family wants the quality of their property and the wildlife on it preserved. 

Kinder Morgan clarified that they could make adjustments to account for Nance’s concerns. They added that in previous talks about the property, they weren’t assured of how definite the construction of this bridge would be. 

During Nance’s testimony, attorneys for the defense pointed out that roads or gravel can still be constructed above any of this pipeline. 

The plaintiffs also called Richard B. Kuprewicz to testify, he is the president of the energy consulting firm Accufacts and deals with pipelines. 

When asked to weigh in on the Permian Highway Pipeline, Kuprewicz said, “if the pipeline were to rupture, it would have tremendously large impact zones well beyond the right-of-way.”

He also suggested that it would not be advisable to live just a few hundred feet away from a 42-inch pipeline, but with objections from the defense, he was stopped short from weighing in on whether that would be advisable for a client in this case. Kuprewicz talked about his concerns about pipeline integrity generally when it comes to natural events.

“Nobody can build a steel pipeline that can handle massive landslide forces,” he said. 

Kuprewicz added that he is aware of several Kinder Morgan pipeline ruptures in other locations, both liquid and gas.

The defense pointed out that Kuprewicz has not visited any of the properties in this case or looked at any of the drawings or construction materials for the pipeline. 

The court hearing should continue Wednesday at 1 p.m., the defense will call up two more witnesses to testify. 

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