Coalition to help mitigate impact of energy sprawl in West Texas

MIDLAND—The West Texas energy sprawl is continuing to expand, with little sign of stopping, and in response, a new coalition has been formed in hopes to mitigate the environmental impact that development could have on the Big Bend region.

Marilu Hastings, Vice President of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, is one of the leaders behind the initiative, and said the idea first came to her when she heard about Apache developing their Alpine High oil and gas site.

“I started talking to a few people about how if you have this extent of oil and gas development in the region that is an undeveloped region for the most part, coupled with renewables, what is this area, this region gonna look like in 20 years or so?” Hastings asked. “Is it gonna look like the Eagle Ford?”

Hastings said a study from the Nature Conservancy showed energy development is now causing the largest loss of open space worldwide, and Texas loses more open space to development than any other state.

“Putting all those things together, I started asking around and talking to a lot of people about what it would mean to try and do things differently, to do energy development differently,” she said. “We are very much in favor of energy development, it’s not like we’re saying that energy development shouldn’t happen, but can it happen in a different way?”

What the coalition will be looking at is development by design, aimed at providing a complete view of how future development could affect current natural systems and ensuring their health for the long-term, mitigating negative effects on local communities. The Big Bend region is one of the most biodiverse regions in the country, with more than 1,200 species of plants, 500 species of birds and 100 species of mammals, including ones not seen anywhere else in Texas like big horn sheep and black bears.

David Iannelli, a partner at Hudson Pacific and the former president of Research+Data Insights, said the effort started in the fall of 2017, asking locals in their coverage area of Pecos, Presidio and Brewster Counties what they knew about energy development and their concerns. Some of those concerns included damaged infrastructure, an influx of crime, and price inflation.

“What they bemoan is the lack of better planning in advance and they’d like to see better planning of this scale,” Iannelli said. “Because these communities are just not ready for the influx of people.”

When they came back a year later for another survey, Iannelli said those same people said they didn’t have confidence in oil and gas production in the area being done while also being watchful of the communities’ land and water.

Louis Harveson, founder and director of the Borderlands Research Institute, is helping with research for the coalition, and said the communities of the Big Bend region are currently ill-prepared for energy development.

“They haven’t seen the energy come to their towns and so it’s really an opportunity to prepare the communities, to prepare the landowners to work with the industry, and find a better balance of how we may operate as we take advantage of energy opportunities in this region,” Harveson said.

Harveson said they have already pulled together a stakeholder advisory group that’s already met once, made up of both conservationists and energy industry executives, including from Apache.

Michael Teague, another member of the group and an energy consultant, said get all of the energy industry integrated into their planning process when it comes to the Big Bend region, and look at what energy companies can improve upon, and see what energy companies are doing well and implementing that here.

“It’s about maximizing the benefits, and minimize the impacts and you can do both. You can do both if you start early enough and you listen to everybody,” Teague said.

Hastings said Respect Big Bend innovating development and engaging with the industry without simply telling them to do better, and funding new research in the region to provide communities with information they may not have access to yet. She also emphasized Respect Big Bend is entirely funded by the Mitchell Foundation and will never receive funding from the energy industry.

There is already a large amount of oil and gas development in the Delaware Basin in Reeves County, which would fall under the coalition’s coverage area, which some would say hasn’t been handled properly. Teague said their role in Reeves County would be to learn lessons from what has happened in Reeves County to learn lessons for future development and share that information.

There are other concerns, such as air and light pollution, that the coalition will look at and prioritize, and Hastings said the majority of their work would be focused on non-regulatory programs, but on issues affecting communities where there may not be a Clean Air Act solution. She said they aren’t quite sure yet what their role will be in regards to issues like flaring and light pollution, but that those would come up during the coming stakeholders meetings.

“This is not a one-off event, this is an initiative that’s going to be around for the long-term, as this issue is going to be around for the long-term,” Teague said. “The initiative is just starting out and a lot of the solutions dedicated toward that solution are being developed.”

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