Wednesday, September 2, 2015

FERC Comment: Cumulative Environmental, Cultural, and Socio-Economic Impacts of the Proposed Trans Pecos Pipeline on the Chihuahuan Desert Region

September 2, 2015

Honorable Norman Bay, and Members of the FERC
Commissioner, Chairman, and Commissioners
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
888 First St., N.E.
Washington, DC, 20426

Dear Chairman Bay and Members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,

Below please find my concerns regarding some of the potential environmental, cultural, and socio-economic impacts of the proposed Trans­Pecos Pipeline project, both jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional facilities, FERC Docket CP15­500.

Thank you for your consideration.


Cumulative Environmental, Cultural, and Socio-Economic Impacts of the Proposed Trans Pecos Pipeline on the Chihuahuan Desert Region

As a biologist, I worked for several years as a research assistant on the GLOBEC (Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics) Project[i], a decade-long study of changing biological and physical factors on George’s Bank (an 11,000 square mile plateau) in the Gulf of Maine. This experience taught me that the health of an ecosystem is dependent on a wide range of interconnected factors, and that the health of one species is dependent on the health of many others; nothing exists in isolation, and everything depends on everything else for survival. While scientists predict that more biodiverse ecosystems will be better able to adapt to change over time, it is difficult or impossible to know which species or factors would be the ones most deserving of preservation or protection.[ii]

While the Chihuahuan Desert is one of the three most biodiverse desert regions on planet Earth, it is also one of the most endangered.[iii] The proposed Trans Pecos Pipeline, both jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional facilities, would be located entirely in the Chihuahan Desert. Of course, this unique bioregion does not stop at the border; the portion of this pipeline that would run south from Ojinaga would also be located in the Chihuahan Desert. The following map is a composite made by overlaying a Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) map of the pipeline with a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) map[iv] of the Chihuahan Desert:

 According to a World Wildlife Fund report:

“The Chihuahuan desert is one of the three most biologically rich and diverse desert ecoregions in the world, rivaled only by the Great Sandy Tanmi Desert of Australia and the Namib-Karoo of southern Africa (Olson and Dinerstein 1998). Approximately 3,500 plant species live in this desert, and estimates of endemism state that there could be up to 1000 endemic species (29%), and at least 16 endemic plant genera (Toledo 1988). The high degree of local endemism is the result of the isolating effects of complex basin and range physiography, and dynamic changes in climate over the last 10,000 years. Another contributing factor to endemism is the colonization of these inhospitable habitats by specialist species with restricted ranges. Taxa with high level of local endemism include cacti, butterflies, spiders, scorpions, ants, lizards and snakes.“[v]

Recognizing the historical, cultural, and ecological value of preserving this region, in 2010 President Obama and then-President Calderón specified its protection in a Bi-National Agreement they cosigned in 2010:    

“The Presidents noted the long history of bilateral cooperation in the conservation of natural and cultural resources.  They recognized that Big Bend National Park and Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in the United States and the Protected Areas of Maderas del Carmen, Cañon de Santa Elena, Ocampo, and Río Bravo del Norte in Mexico together comprise one of the largest and most significant ecological complexes in North America.  In doing so, they recognized that increased cooperation in these protected areas would restrict development and enhance security in the region and within this fragile desert ecosystem.  To preserve this region of extraordinary biological diversity, they expressed their support for the United States Department of Interior and the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources of the United Mexican States to work through appropriate national processes to recognize and designate Big Bend – Rio Bravo as a natural area of binational interest.  The Presidents underscored their commitment to manage the region in a way that enhances security and protects these areas for wildlife preservation, ecosystem restoration, climate change adaptation, wildland fire management, and invasive species control.”[vi]

In 2011, a Bi-National Conservation Plan was announced. From the press release:

“When you come to an area as remote and as beautiful as Big Bend, it truly changes your perception of what a border is and what a border can be,” said U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne. “There is a line - the river in this case - that politically marks the boundaries of our two countries. But for a tourist, for a park ranger, for a conservationist, and for anyone who has visited this spectacular place, one thing is clear: what we share here – the seamless flow of nature across both banks of the river – is far stronger and far more enduring than what divides us.”

Home to 446 species of birds, 3,600 species of insects, more than 1,500 plants, and 75 species of mammals, the Big Bend region of Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila provide a unique opportunity for scientists, natural resource managers, and park staff to collaborate in areas that will benefit the people, the landscapes, and the wildlife on both sides of the border.

Following the announcement, the Secretaries and Ambassador participated in a wildlife release on the U.S. side of the border, demonstrating the results of successful coordination efforts in reaching a common conservation goal. Joined by members of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Salazar, Elvira, and Wayne helped with the transport and release of 267,000 Rio Grande Silvery Minnows as part of an ongoing recovery project for the endangered species. Earlier this month, Mexico released fifteen bird species on the Mexican side of the border in Chihuahua. The species included: two Red-tailed Hawks, two Roadside Hawks, two American Kestrels, one Gray Hawk, two Great Horned Owls, three Burrowing Owls, and three Cooper's Hawks.”[vii]

The following is the full text of the Joint Statement on Cooperative Action for Conservation in the Big Bend/Rio Bravo Region (no longer available on the Department of the Interior website)[viii]:

This Cooperative Action initiative resulted in the 2014 “Conservation Assessment for the Big Bend-Rio Bravo Region: A Bi-National Collaborative Approach to Conservation”[ix], a 106-page study with contributions by 23 authors.  

“This large binational area, comprised by a total of eleven protected areas in Texas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, offers a unique opportunity for conservation because of its isolation from human settlements and the unfragmented nature of its landscape. Connectivity of habitats in these borderlands is essential to maintain and restore biodiversity, particularly in the face of a changing climate.” (p. ix)

Among the 29 Priority Conservation areas listed on p xiv, approximately 60 miles of the proposed Trans Pecos Pipeline would run through at least four of them: Alamito Creek (a Riparian and Aquatic Habitat listed at medium risk), the Alpine and Marfa Grasslands (high risk), and the Rio Grande River Corridor (high risk).

The following image is a composite made from the projected route of the Trans Pecos Pipeline overlaid on the map of Priority Conservation Areas on p 1 of the Conservation Assessment:

Among the Conservation Target Species found in the four Priority Conservation Areas are the Salina mucket, Tampico pearlymussel, Texas hornshell, Woodhouse’s toad, Big Bend rough-footed mud turtle, Merriam’s canyon lizard, Mexican stoneroller, Red shiner, Roundnose minnow, Rio Grande silvery Minnow, Speckled chub, Chihuahua shiner, Rio Grande shiner, Longnose dace, Blue sucker, Mexican redhorse, Conchos pupfish, Rio Grande darter, Desert Massasauga, Ferruginous hawk, Golden eagle, Peregrine falcon, Northern aplomado falcon, Mountain plover, Upland sandpiper, Gambel’s quail, Long-billed curlew, Montezuma quail, Burrowing owl, Loggerhead shrike, Vesper sparrow, Baird’s sparrow, Eastern meadowlark, Kit fox, Kangaroo rat, Pronghorn, Endemic but unlisted cactuses, Native riparian trees, and rare and economically-important wetland plants (species include Brahea berlandieri, lechuguilla, ocotillo, lippia, candellila, Yucca spp., and sotol).

According to ETP’s website, the construction area along the route will be limited to a corridor 125’ wide[x] (this figure does not include access roads or equipment storage and parking areas). The map above indicates that the pipeline route would cross through approximately 60 miles of Priority Conservation Area.

Therefore, construction activity associated with the proposed Trans­Pecos Pipeline Presidio Crossing Project jurisdictional and integral non­jurisdictional facilities will temporarily disrupt or permanently destroy, at minimum, 909 acres of Priority Conservation Area.

Major physical habitat disturbance and noise caused by double-ditch construction methods and horizontal drilling at the jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional facilities will have severe negative impacts on numerous rare, threatened, and endangered plant and mammal species.

It is well documented that compaction of soil caused by old-time wagon wheels, even in less arid regions, created ruts that have persisted for a century.[xi] Reading through FERC’s “Upland Erosion Control, Revegetation, and Maintenance Plan”[xii] the reseeding and soil compaction mitigation techniques appear to be designed for locations with loamier soil conditions and higher rainfall. In order to understand the needs of fragile desert ecosystems, additional specialized research would be required.

On page 30 of Energy Transfer Partners Environmental Report, Presidio Crossing Project by Gremminger and Associates, Inc. (May 2015) it is claimed that:

“Other direct impacts to the soil result from rutting and compaction of the soil surface and immediate subsurface by equipment and vehicles. The degree of this impact will depend largely on the moisture content of the soil. By employing the erosion control and mitigation measures outlined within the FERC’s Plan and Procedures, Trans-Pecos believes that off-ROW sedimentation will be minimized to the greatest extent practical. Surface disturbances will be restricted to desert shrub land and topsoil will be restored to the original location pursuant to the easement agreement. Implementation of the appropriate measures should contain and control any erosion and minimize any runoff sedimentation from the ROW.”

Statements such as Trans Pecos believes the sedimentation will be minimized to the greatest extent practical” and “surface disturbances will be restricted to desert shrub land” strongly suggest that TPP LLC plans to conduct their activities according to subjective judgments, not empirical data. In addition, statements made by Project Manager Rick Smith at ETP’s Open House Meeting in Alpine, TX on July 8, 2015 did not inspire confidence that TPP LLC has a complete, evidence-based understanding of what would be required " vegetate the land back to equal/better than it was before."[xiii]

In order to develop their Environmental Report, a one-day study limited to the half-acre jurisdictional facility was conducted by Gremminger and Associates. According to page 13 of Gremminger’s report “GAI biologists conducted a field assessment of the proposed route on May 6, 2015.” Based on these minimal observations, GAI concluded on page 15 that “The Project will have a short-term negative effect to wildlife use of the lands directly affected by construction of the Project, and on adjacent lands in immediate vicinity to the construction activity…It is GAI’s opinion the Project will have little to no effect to birds of conservation concern.” With all due respect, an opinion based on several hours of observation is not sufficient in a matter requiring thorough research by experts in regional biology.

An archeological survey of the same half-acre jurisdictional facility site was also conducted on the same single day. On page 22 it is stated, “GAI’s archaeological subcontractor, Turpin and Sons, Inc. (TAS) performed a cultural resources assessment of all lands on and immediately adjacent to the proposed work location on May 6, 2015. As a result of this effort no existing or previously unknown cultural resources were discovered.” Again, a one-day assessment cannot be relied upon to yield meaningful data. An in-depth study conducted by local experts in concert with local tribal representatives should be conducted in order to make an authoritative determination.

In the case of the Chihuahan Desert, it is difficult to extract ecological and cultural concerns from socio-economic ones, as the regional economy, strongly based in eco-tourism, ranching, and hunting, depends on preservation of not only the physical environment, but also the strong perception in the public consciousness of this truly unique, remote, and unspoiled place as “The Last Frontier”. The Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, McDonald Observatory, Chinati Hot Springs, Marfa Mystery Lights, the Chinati Foundation, and the Judd Foundation are among the many local attractions that intrigue and delight visitors from across the state, the country, and the world.

While conflicting, unsubstantiated stories about the potential economic benefits of the Trans Pecos Pipeline have been circulating in local media, the Gremminger report clearly states on page 24 that since “The Project is minimal in nature, size, and construction duration; therefore, the Project would have only a minimal positive affect to the local economy from purchase of consumable supplies from local vendors and merchants, and potential lodging of the workforce for the short duration of the construction activity. The Project will not have a substantial affect, positively or negatively, on the local socioeconomic area…”

This statement does not constitute a compelling cost/benefit analysis. Damage to the fragile desert  ecosystem, losses to our environment-dependent economy in the form of decrease in tourism revenue, decrease in property valuations, increased stress on roadways, first responders, and aquifers are not taken into account. When Project Manager Rick Smith was asked during the Open House in Alpine, TX on July 8 whether a comprehensive cost/benefit analysis had been conducted, he revealed that, “No, we do not factor negatives into our calculations.”

In addition, according to page 5 of Trans Pecos Pipeline LLC’s  FERC “Application for Natural Gas Act Section 3 Authorization and Presidential Permit to Construct Natural Gas Pipeline Facilities at the United States – Mexico Border” the proposed Trans Pecos Pipeline is not intended to serve any domestic or municipal customer. Rather, “The principal use for the natural gas transported though the Presidio Crossing Project facilities will be to fuel natural gas-fired electric generation plants and supply potential industrial customers in northern Mexico.”

This statement, while directly referring to the FERC jurisdictional facility, also indirectly refers to the 143-mile non-jurisdictional facility attached to, and entirely dependent upon, the jurisdictional facility.

In sum: TPP LLC is requesting a Certificate of Public Convenience to route their facilities – both jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional – through four protected Priority Conservation Areas in the third most biologically diverse desert in the world based on Mr. Gremminger and Associates 1-day assessment limited to the half-acre crossing site. In addition, it is unclear what public, if any, is being served by this project.

Based on the Bi-National Agreement, the Joint Statement for Cooperative Action, the Conservation Assessment, and Trans Pecos Pipeline LLC’s dubious claim to service in the “public good”, the Commission should patently deny TPP LLC’s request for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the FERC jurisdictional facility.

Routes that would take the TPP project outside the protected Chihuahuan Desert should be investigated. At minimum, FERC should conduct a complete NEPA compliant Environmental Impact Statement for the project as a whole, including the jurisdictional, and non-jurisdictional facilities, as it is obligated to do under 40 CFR Chapter V, Parts 1500 – 1518.

[xi] “Persistance of Soil Structural Modifications Along a Historic Wagon Trail”

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