The Hill Country is seeing notices for, and work on, the first 42-inch natural gas pipeline to be buried nine feet underground on Gillespie County properties.
Kinder-Morgan LLC is based in Houston and their project is to connect natural gas fields near Midland with sales and shipping points near Houston.
Allen Fore, vice president, public affairs for Kinder Morgan pipeline company, visited Kerrville last week as “hearings” were being held in Gillespie County by volunteer “commissioners” with owners of affected properties on the 430-mile-long natural gas pipeline route.
Fore called the Permian Highway Pipeline “critical infrastructure,” saying crude oil being drilled in Texas’ Permian Basin is bringing up methane that must be burned off (flared); and it’s wasted so far.
In early October, maps on the company website show “an imprecise route” within a 3-mile wide buffer zone, and shapes to represent the various properties possibly affected by the route. Company notifications went out to propertyowners in the fall of 2018.
Near Kerrville, that “buffer zone” starts about eight miles north of the Kerr County line with Gillespie County on State Hwy. 16, south of Fredericksburg; and also clips the northernmost corner of Kerr County at Harper, along State Hwy. 290 and crossing FM 783.
The City of Fredericksburg unanimously passed a resolution last April opposing the project, as did Wimberley. But it hasn’t slowed Kinder-Morgan’s plans.
Under Texas law, this pipeline construction activity falls under the authority of the state Railroad Commission.
A lawsuit to try to stop the pipeline project was filed by landowners, Hays County and City of Kyle last spring; and reached the district courtroom of Judge Lora Livingston in Austin.
On June 25, Livingston announced her decision to dismiss the lawsuit, finding against the plaintiffs and for the Railroad Commission and Kinder-Morgan, saying she felt compelled to follow current law in the Texas Constitution giving utility companies the right of eminent domain. She had concerns, though, about lack of public notice and open meeting scrutiny, and too little oversight by the RR Commission.
“Her decision was pretty clear about regulations in Texas still resting with the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality,” Fore said last week.
The last session of the state Legislature considered two bills that would have changed that legal path, to a multi-step hearing process that gives opposing property owners and governmental entities more chances to speak and affect the outcome.
But neither bill made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
Fore said the company recently reached an agreement with City of Kyle about how the pipeline will cross infrastructure in the city limits there. He said there could be additional agreements as they finalize the route.
He said they are now working with maps of a 600-foot wide corridor that’s been surveyed, and the company has acquired about 80 percent of the easements they need on that land.
The company is taking a 50-foot wide permanent easement, and a 75-foot easement during construction, he said. The entire width and length is “clear-cut” with all trees removed.
“The variations at this point are minor at various tracts,” Fore said.
The company had dirt turning, starting a few weeks ago in the Western phase near Midland.
“There are five construction ‘spreads,’ each being worked on independently. The Hill Country is its own ‘spread; and we’ve already had pipe delivered to a site and other ‘mechanics’ to get started,” Fore said.
Fore said there are, and have been for decades, multiple pipelines underground in the Hill Country. Some were built by Kinder-Morgan and some by other companies.
“This pipeline is only for high-pressure natural gas. If there’s a leak, natural gas rises into the atmosphere, while crude oil would sink down into the ground,” he said. “If there’s a planned or unplanned release, the natural gas would go up.”
Finished trenches will have the pipeline buried 9 feet underground, he said.
Their surveying includes the “karst features,” the underground chambers that help filter water; and those areas are bored through for the pipeline. “We know what’s down there before we do that,” he said.
Where the pipeline must cross a navigable river – governed by other state agencies – their preferred process is “directional drilling,” under the riverbed in a long downward curve and up again on the other side.
The pipeline also must go under Interstate 35 near Kyle. Fore said they typically would do a boring operation that doesn’t impact the road surface or subsurface.
As for jobs, Fore said the company estimates 2,500 workers in the construction phase, “the big activity.” When completed, they will hire about 18 “line riders” for maintenance checks.
There will be five “compressor stations,” including one near Stonewall, with personnel assigned there.
Once completed, the natural gas pushed through this pipeline from Midland to the Gulf Coast (northwest to southeast) will mostly be sold and shipped out of the United States, mainly to Mexico.
Some, Fore said, will be sold to a few local utilities that contract to have access along the pipeline route.
“The ability to access the pipeline in the future is there,” he said.
Kinder-Morgan has been in business since 1997, and Fore said their safety record is on their website.
Company view of dealing with landowners
Fore said the entire length of this pipeline affects about 1,000 land tracts. Each owner gets private notification and there is a process for negotiation for compensation for easements.
“Local appraisers in each county give Kinder-Morgan a baseline appraisal; and landowners can get their own done,” he said.
“If it’s rural land, it goes back to prior use. We survey for cultural and environmental factors and endangered species. And we survey a wide swath to get the 50 feet to use.”
On those visits, he said, the landowner goes with the surveying crew to tell them about things only the owner/family knows – a water well there, or a family grave here, or potential development value (example - home lots already planned).
Fore said each one is a negotiation and they started about a year ago, and have about 80 percent complete.
A ranchland cattle pasture is appraised for less than acreage or a lot with a house on it, and “new” is more valuable than “older.”
“The appraiser creates what he considers a justifiable and fair offer. It’s not usually where we end. Negotiations are done from a kitchen table to Kinder-Morgan offices, and unusual cases could become court situations.”
One option is to have a sitting judge appoint a special commissioners’ court, chosen from volunteers’ names to pick five local residents and some alternates to determine each owners’ “fair compensation.” If the company agrees, the landowner is paid that amount, Fore said.
Asked how a pipeline operation benefits the counties they cross, Fore said each county gets property tax revenue, and Gillespie County gets an estimated $650,000 now from about 183 miles of pipelines. The new station will be added to that.
The company pays royalties, Fore said, about $2 billion annually, primarily to the state’s Higher Education Fund.