Fighting the 'status quo' of energy development

MIDLAND—The Big Bend region is considered one of the most biodiverse in the Western Hemisphere, while also sitting in one of the most energy-intensive areas of the world — and experts say if that energy is not developed responsibly, the sustainability of the region and its resources could be at risk.

Still in its infancy, the Respect Big Bend Coalition (RBBC) — a communal collaboration — was formed to ensure Big Bend's resources are conserved while the benefits of energy development remain maximal.

The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation introduced the new initiative May 2 at the Petroleum Museum in conjunction with the late George Mitchell's induction into the Petroleum Hall of Fame.

The briefing began with a three-minute preview of the coalition's short-documentary series "The Long Game," followed by a presentation of its research findings thus far. Four recurring ideas were discussed throughout the hour-long meeting:

The Big Bend region is a 'special place'
The region spans across five counties — Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio with areas of Pecos and Reeves — and sits partly in the Chihuahuan Desert.

It has more than 1 million acres of public lands, including four state and national parks — Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park, Davis Mountains State Park and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park — as well as the north side of the Rio Grande River.

Much of the rest is privately owned land for ranching, as well as land conservation.

The Big Bend is home to more than 1,200 plant species, 500 bird species and 100 mammal species, said Louis Harveson, who serves as the founder and director of the Borderlands Research Institute. This includes bighorn sheep and black bears, which cannot be found in any other area of the state.

It is also home to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, and just outside its coverage in Reeves County, is the world's largest artesian spring-fed swimming pool, Balmorhea.

Big Bend was described by residents in the documentary as "iconic Texas" with "wide open spaces" and "rugged individualism." One said he "sees stars differently out there" and it's like "leaving into a different world."

"It is a destination area for many Texans and Americans, and it deserves special attention," Haverson said.

Rapid energy development in West (and far West) Texas
West Texas has more than 45 billion barrels of oil and 281 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. This could produce enough to meet the needs of the American demand for six years, according to the RBBC website.

The state also has a larger wind-generation capacity than all other wind-producing states combined — and soon, Pecos County alone will increase its solar energy by 12,000 megawatts, which is equivalent to 50 percent of the total wind capacity in the entire state.

West Texas has become an "industrialized landscape," a resident said in the documentary. She said there are consistent additions of infrastructure, roads, transmission lines, pipelines, large solar facilities and wind turbines. In one community, there have been seven motels built within 18 months.

"The character of the landscape is changing," another resident said.

And there seems to be no slowing down.

Mitchell Foundation Vice President Marilu Hastings, a Midland native, said the loss of open space — worldwide — is largely because of energy development, but Texas loses more open space to development than any other state.

In fact, Texas is the only oil and gas state that doesn't have land protection regulations or statutory requirements, she said.

"If you have this extent of oil and gas development in the region, undeveloped for the most part, coupled with renewables, like solar and wind development, and it's also associated with infrastructure, pipelines, transmission lines and roads, what is this area and region going to look like in 20 years or so?" Hastings said she asked herself a few years ago.

From there, the Respect Big Bend Coalition was formed.

Research findings
The RBBC began its research nearly a year and a half ago, polling Texas residents on their knowledge of energy development. David Ianelli, a partner at Hudson Pacific and former president of Research+Data Insights, said residents also stated any concerns of consequences that may follow the development.

The top four included: damaged infrastructure, contaminated water, crime and price inflation.

He said 78 percent of those surveyed thought oil and gas development is good, though they had little confidence that the community and its resources would remain safe if oil and gas are produced there.

When asked which areas oil and gas production should not explore, he said the Big Bend National Park had the highest opposition for placement at 67 percent. The Davis Mountains and McDonald Observatory had the second-highest with 54 percent, and the individual's local community had the third-highest at 50 percent.

He said that many respondents were not familiar with the Davis Mountains or Balmorhea, so they opted out of any opinion.

When asked about wind and solar energy development, however, the responses were different. He said 87 percent of respondents thought wind and solar energy are good, and more than 50 percent of respondents were "very confident" that the community and its resources can stay protected while small-scale solar panels, large-scale solar farms and wind turbines are produced there.

The same respondents were asked the same questions a year later in the fall of 2018, and there was very little change in response.

Placing the blame on energy companies and local and state governments, residents stated they now want better planning, protected infrastructure, restoration of the land and community and better education on the development. This is what the coalition is trying to do, said Iannelli.

Efforts of the coalition
Hastings said the purpose of the coalition is to "achieve balance" by doing things differently and "fighting the status quo."

"Our goal is not to stop energy development, but to do energy development right," Brett Holmes of the foundation said.

And there will be a two-pronged approach to accomplish what they set out to do.

First, the science team, which includes Haverson and his partner, Billy Tarrant, will manage the local engagement process with the communities. This involves recruiting the stakeholder advisory group, Hastings said. Second, the chief scientist, Joe Kiesecker from the Nature Conservancy, will work with the group to identify community values and discuss trade-offs.

For the places where development has already begun, such as Reeves County, the approach will be different, said Michael Teague, an energy policy consultant and the first secretary of energy and environment in Oklahoma.

"Our role there is to start working with the companies already operating and discuss what is working and what isn't working," Teague said.

Then the coalition wants to ensure the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is apprised of what it is doing and that the TCEQ is engaged in an appropriate way, said Kip Averitt, a former Texas state senator.

The group is not lobbying, but it is communicating with the TCEQ, and the two groups are exchanging information with one another, he said.

"It's a long process that we just started," Haverson said. "We're taking data we have, identifying gaps that may be missing and listening to industry on what their vision is for the region. If they can tell us they want X numbers of turbines in the Trans-Pecos, then maybe we can put it in a place that's not as obstructive as others. If we have 400,000 visitors going to Big Bend National Park each year, do we really want a big wind farm right on the outskirts?

"That's, functionally, what we are trying to do — is problem-solve and help with siting, mitigation and restoration of all energy — solar, wind, oil and gas."


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