The first time I met Lori Glover, it was during the predawn darkness of a December morning last year in the small town of Alpine in far west Texas, and she had locked her neck to the gate of the Trans-Pecos pipeline’s staging site in an act of civil disobedience.
A month later, I found myself in Glover’s battered pickup truck speeding towards the border between the United States and Mexico. Our destination was the Two Rivers camp, a direct-action encampment inspired by the Standing Rock Sioux protests against the Dakota Access pipeline that she and a group of indigenous Texans had founded a scant two weeks earlier. Their goal is to stop the Trans-Pecos pipeline, a 148-mile length of 42-inch pipe that, if completed, will carry 1.4 billion cubic feet of fracked natural gas per day from the state’s oil- and gas-rich Permian Basin and through the state’s Big Bend region, before connecting with a pipeline under the Rio Grande River and ending up at the port city of Topolobampo in Sinaloa, Mexico.
They had held their first direct action two days prior on January 7, during which two protesters—Glover’s husband Mark and Jakki Hagans of the Texas-based group Society of Native Nations—had chained themselves to pipeline machinery in an effort to delay construction, and the plan was to continue to put their bodies on the frontlines.
“The government won’t do crap until they hear our voices,” she told me. “If the Dakota Access pipeline is the head of the black snake, then we’re the tail.”
It’s an apt comparison. The Trans-Pecos pipeline is being built by the same company that’s in charge of the Dakota Access pipeline, the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners. Hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline crisscross the state of Texas, but until this latest pipeline arrived, nothing close to its scale existed here in the remote, rugged Big Bend, named for the way the Rio Grande River curves as it flows through the Chihuahuan Desert.
According to a popular local story, the Big Bend was made from the rubble left over from the creation of the rest of the world, rocks and boulders casually thrown from the heavens by an anonymous deity. Though a landscape described as detritus sounds like the opposite of appealing, it’s impossibly beautiful. It’s rare these days to feel true solitude, and yet I felt it there in the spareness of the high desert with its jagged yucca plants and gnarled mesquite trees and dark green creosote bushes, punctuated by purple cacti and, occasionally, the yelps of coyotes.
So this pipeline in the desert—a pastel-green behemoth that snaked across the land and through coffee-colored mountains, all of which were visible around us as Glover and I drove to the Two Rivers camp—was an incongruous and ominous sight.
In Texas, the Big Bend holds mythic status. William Echols, who traveled through the area on a camel mapping out supply routes for the U.S. military in the mid-1800s, wrote that the Big Bend was a “picture of barrenness and desolation” after he ran out of water on his trip. Others, like the children’s book writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans, saw a land of incomparable beauty: “In a lifetime spent in traveling, here I come upon the greatest wonder,” he wrote of the Big Bend. The mantle of God touches you; it is what Beethoven reached for in music; it is panorama without beginning or end.”
The Spaniards who came before it was part of Mexico, before white American settlers came and became Texans, before Texas itself became part of the United States, called this region the despoblado, the uninhabited lands, on their maps. But this was more wishful thinking than the truth, for Native tribes had long lived and roamed through its desert canyons and mountains—first the Jumano and Conchos as well as others, and then later the Mescalero and Lipan Apaches who claimed it as the eastern edge of what the Spanish named Apacheria. The Comanche Trail goes through the region, and travel through the Big Bend, and you’ll still see the remains of forts that were built to violently rid the state of its Native peoples, reminders of why many Texans call it the last frontier.
Today, it’s seen as the last frontier for the energy industry in Texas, one of the few parts of the state that is as of yet unsullied by the oil rigs, fracking, and drilling that dominate so much of the state’s landscape and economy. Texas’s economy is tied to the fate of oil and gas, a fact I was reminded of earlier that day by the radio, where the local reports were full of doom and gloom about the state’s legislative session and how to fill the $2 billion budget hole left by declining oil and gas revenues.
It’s the sense that they live in the last pristine part of Texas that is motivating residents like Glover, who describes herself as an unlikely activist. Born in Savannah, Georgia, she had moved in 1996 to nearby Fort Stockton with her then-husband. “It wasn’t a good marriage,” she said. “One day, I packed up everything I could fit into a U-Haul and drove down here. It was my first time in the desert, and I loved the mountains. It became my sanctuary.”
If in 2015 the pipeline came as a surprise and a shock to many who live in the Big Bend, the outcry afterward must have been of equal surprise, not least to Energy Transfer Partners and its CEO, Kelcy Warren. In this Republican-leaning part of the state, so sparsely populated that there continues to be only one person living there per square mile, people typically opposed to one another began organizing together.
Ranchers, upset about what they perceive as an illegal land grab by ETP, are suing the company. They’re supported by the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, a local nonprofit that has consistently raised questions about the wisdom of putting a highly pressurized pipeline in a delicate, arid landscape and organized support not only from locals but from the likes of Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, and Tommy Lee Jones. And another group of residents, led by Glover, are putting their hope in direct action, recently joined by Native activists from around the state who see it as the next step in continuing the momentum of Standing Rock. If the fight against the Dakota Access pipeline provided the template for successful resistance to the extractive industries, they’re testing that model here in the Big Bend.
Still, despite almost two years of lawsuits and petitions and marches, construction of the pipeline has continued. At this late hour, it was more than 90 percent done, and ETP predicts it will go into operation this March. “Until it’s completely finished, it’s not done. I’m ready for us to get out there and start blocking it,” Glover said.
By the time we pulled into the dusty, windswept encampment, the sky had begun its fade to a deep azure blue, and as I set up my tent, stars began winking out in the deepening dark. It’s not easy to get to the camp—the last stretch is a rocky dirt path littered with potholes—but a wave of volunteers had come the first few days it opened, many drawn by a call put out by Standing Rock organizers. They had helped to clear the pathways of brush and build many of the structures I saw as I walked through the camp: the fully-stocked kitchen packed with supplies that had been donated and driven in, some from as far as Boston; two toilets; a half-finished shower; the pit in which the sacred fire burned continuously.
That night, I met Jakki Hagans and her husband, Pete Hefflin, a member of the Mescalero Apache tribe, as they sat outside the fire they built next to their tent. Two of the co-founders of the Society of Native Nations, they live outside of Houston, where they own a shop called NDN Ways.
“They say there’s no Natives here in Texas, but there is, they’re just hid away,” Hefflin said.
Hagans agreed. “A lot of our own people don’t even know they’re Native,” she said. She had been raised by her Cherokee grandmother who, in Hagans’ words, “lived in a white world,” and she’d only begun participating in Native ceremonies in her thirties. “So many people have lost their culture.”
The photographer and writer Edward S. Curtis succinctly described Texas’s posture in the late 1800s toward its Native populations as, “Go elsewhere or be exterminated.” Others have described it as “total war.” Today, there are only three federally recognized tribes in the states: the Alabama-Coushatta, the Kickapoo, and the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, and while the state government has passed resolutions to formally recognize two other tribes, the Lipan Apache and the Yaquis, those resolutions don’t mean much. Texas didn’t even have an agency to oversee Native affairs until 1965. And then it shuttered its doors in 1989, arguing that since the federal government was providing assistance to officially recognized tribes, there was no longer a role for the state.
At Standing Rock, part of the standoff was over tribal sovereignty and the role of the tribe in making decisions regarding the pipeline. Here in Texas, it’s a matter of whether the government even recognizes tribes as valid at all, and more broadly, whether it’s recognized that Native peoples still exist. While the Trans-Pecos pipeline cuts through no official tribal lands in the state, the couple see their opposition to the pipeline as part of their work to reclaim indigenous culture and spirituality in a state where almost all of that was brutally erased.
The 57-year-old Hefflin got his start working with Diné activists during the 1980s in their fight against the Peabody coal company. “I started helping the rug weavers, the women, the elders.”
Hefflin showed me his cell phone, which he’s been using to post a series of Facebook Live videos directly from the camp. “I just went live a while ago, and already we have 2,000 views.”
“I wish we could have direct action every day. That’s the only way we’re going to stop this,” Hefflin said. “We’re here to stay until we stop the pipeline.”
Some of the first people to sound the alarm about the Trans-Pecos pipeline were the ranchers whose lands it was going to cut through, like James Spriggs and his 50-year-old daughter Debra. News of the pipeline had begun trickling out in the trade press in the beginning of 2014 but concerted opposition to the pipeline only began in early 2015, when ranchers in the area first complained of surveyors and landmen hired by ETP banging on their doors.
The family owns a ranch south of the town of Marfa; at just under 4,000 acres, it’s one of the smaller ranches in the area, but for the Spriggses, who bought the property in 1992 for $700,000 by pooling together the resources of several generations of the family, it’s the realization of a lifelong dream. “All they’ve ever wanted is to live off the land peacefully and get away from people,” said Debra Spriggs.
Debra met with me on a clear December day last year to show me just what the pipeline company had done to their ranch, and as we drove slowly down a dirt path, she described the pipeline company repeatedly as “bullies.” It’s a sentiment that’s widely shared by other ranchers, and it’s easy to see why: The pipeline company had filed lawsuits against landowners who refused to allow surveyors to access their ranchland, exercising their right in the state to seize land under eminent domain, and had offered what many viewed as pitiful compensation. (According to Debra, her family was offered $1,200, while an independent appraiser they hired had determined they should have received $410,000).
In December of 2015, after the company filed temporary restraining orders against the Spriggses and other ranchers and dangled the threat of a civil suits in front of them, they were forced to allow pipeline surveyors onto their land, and construction began 10 months later.
“They basically said we don’t have a choice,” Spriggs said.
When we arrived at the site of the pipeline, a more than 100-foot-wide swath of dirt greeted us, stretching as far as the eye could see, under which the pipeline had already been buried. “Destruction” is an apt word to describe what we were looking at—“deadzone” is another—for the machinery used to dig up the earth had also destroyed the fragile ecosystem. While ETP has promised to reseed the topsoil, some experts predict it will take decades for the land to recover.
“They don’t think they did anything to our land and look at this,” she said, gesturing to what she referred to as a highway that cuts her ranch in half. “They didn’t do anything to me?”
“This is the last place clear and free of chemicals in the air. If they have their way,” Spriggs said of ETP, “they’ll destroy it all. They’ll destroy the earth.”
You’ll hear a similar refrain from local residents over and over again: We don’t want to become like Midland or Odessa (or Odesolate, as some call it), the two towns in the heart of the Permian Basin. One pipeline begets another, and if fracked natural gas and crude oil are the blood of the extractive industries, then pipelines are their arteries. Residents fear a pipeline could open the door for oil and gas exploration, and that threat has turned many of them into activists.
“I love to see for miles and miles and miles, and you can do that out here. No pumpjacks, no oil wells,” Ginny Brotherton, a pipeline opponent, told me as we sat in the living room of her home, a view of the mountains and the sky visible through her window.
This mild-mannered, almost 70-year-old woman was so angered by what she perceived as the arrogance of ETP that at one point she had contemplated shaving “Water is Life” on one side of her head, as well as painting a giant middle finger on her roof so that it could be seen by airborne surveyors hired by the pipeline company. “I wasn’t an activist in any way. I just floated along life like anybody else, thinking that those who had power had our best interests at heart,” she said. “That’s damn sure not true.”
Brotherton lives close to the 23-acre pipeline staging site in Alpine, and that’s where I met Coyne Gibson, a bespectacled man in his mid-50s who has become a leading member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance. We’re standing next to an anti-pipeline billboard put up by the homeowner next door, and he’s detailing to me everything that can—and does—go wrong with pipeline projects.
“I’ve seen this before, and I know exactly what it does to the communities, to the environment, and the landscape it happens in,” he said. “It’s devastating.”
Pipeline-related accidents—ruptures, explosions, fires—happen daily in the United States along the country’s 2.5 million miles of pipeline, according to data compiled by the federal government, and Gibson believes the chances of this pipeline operating safely are “pretty close to zero.” In a written statement, pipeline spokesperson Lisa Dillinger noted that “the design, construction, and operation” of the pipeline will “meet or exceed where possible all state and federal safety standards,” and pointed out that the Trans-Pecos pipeline will be remotely monitored around-the-clock.
In June of 2015, a two-year-old ETP-built pipeline in Cuero, Texas exploded, shooting a fireball more than 100 feet into the air and melting the road and burning surrounded power lines. To a witness, it had “sounded like the end of the world,” and news of the Cuero explosion had both alarmed and galvanized Big Bend residents.
Bending down to the ground, Gibson picked off a stalk of grass. “Everything is tinder dry,” he said. If a similar accident were to happen here, in an arid land where in a good year 15 inches of rain falls, he said, “This would ignite, and everything you see would be consumed within 10 minutes. We’d watch it burn.”
Gibson grew up in Midland, and has roots in the oil and gas industry that go back generations. He, along with his wife, worked in the industry, until he had a moment of startling clarity while working for Fluor in Evanston, Wy. at a natural gas development that was part of the Overthrust belt. Driving through the field that day, he noticed dead cattle littering the ground, and flags on bamboo poles lining the road.
“I asked, ‘What’s the deal here?’ They said, ‘They’re the canary in the coal mine. If you see a cow on the ground, look to see what direction the wind’s going, and run upwind.’” There had been a sour gas leak, a poisonous gas that is fatal to both humans and animals even in small amounts. Knowing that a leak could occur, the company had leased the cattle from local ranchers to act as a warning system.
He quit that day. “I got home that afternoon, I called my boss in Houston, and I said, ‘I’m done. I’m flying back home tomorrow,’” he said.
Gibson was at the first public meeting called by the BBCA in April of 2015, armed with reams of research he had already conducted on his own, including a map he had generated from GPS coordinates that he had found in a request for proposals for the pipeline. What he found had alarmed him. “Lo and behold, this pipeline route went through Jeff Davis County about 16 miles from my home. And I went, ‘What the hell?’” he said.
To Gibson, it’s the regulatory and enforcement system that needs to change. Recently, a friend of mine who works for an environmental justice organization in Texas said to me that when it comes to regulating the oil and gas industry, Texas remains the Wild West—a place of few rules, at least if you’re an energy company, and the ones that exist are often ignored (to list just one example, drillers routinely disregard regulations requiring them to seal their wells to prevent groundwater contamination). No permit is required to build a pipeline in the state, and there had been no environmental impact statement conducted to assess the risks of the entire length of the Trans-Pecos pipeline.
The federal government is scarcely better. In 2015, residents concerned about the impact of the pipeline had flooded the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, with more than 1,000 comments and requests asking them to assess the entire pipeline route. That request was denied, with FERC claiming that due to the pipeline’s classification as an intrastate project, it only had jurisdiction to review the section that crosses the border under the Rio Grande.
Subsequent efforts to petition FERC to intervene had also failed. Now, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance is suing the federal agency over what it believes are violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, and the group is working with landowners to challenge the state’s use of eminent domain. It will be an uphill battle. A Trump administration promises to be even more friendly towards the oil and gas industry—his pick to head the Department of Energy (under whose aegis FERC, among other agencies, operates) is former Texas governor Rick Perry, who until recently sat on the board of Energy Transfer Partners and is notoriously friendly with Big Oil.
Trump himself owned up to $1 million worth of stock in ETP at one point, and on January 24, he signed executive memos and orders that not only revived work on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, but also promised to expedite reviews of similar infrastructure projects.
“All we’re asking is for people to follow the law,” Gibson said. “How sad is that?” Gibson knows the lawsuits, which will take months if not years to wind through the court system, won’t stop this pipeline. Still, he said: “We’re going to exercise due process to the full extent of the law, and eventually we’re going to win. And we’re going to leverage those victories to stop other projects.”
Another direct action had been planned a few days after I arrived at Two Rivers camp, and that morning, a caravan of trucks and vans streamed to the site where the two activists had chained themselves to one of the machines building the pipeline. One of them was Lori Glover, the other a young woman from the Society of Native Nations.
Someone had brought a drum and another had lit some sage, and to the sounds of singing and rhythmic drumming and the sweet scent of the sage, we watched from more than 100 feet away, pressed next to the guardrail. Border Patrol vehicles drove into the site, their lights flashing. A little after 8 AM, the two protesters were handcuffed and arrested. For a couple of hours, work had stopped, but a few minutes later, the cranes rumbled back to life.
Glover was charged with not only criminal trespassing, but criminal mischief, the latter of which a felony. If the local police officers thought this would stop her and others, they would be proved wrong. A few days later, she was back at the camp, and last Thursday, another activist, this time a man from Houston, temporarily halted construction when he locked himself to a bulldozer. “We’re going to keep on trying. We’re going to keep on holding them off longer,” Glover said. She sounded tired, but she and everyone else at the camp will soon be joined by a crew of protesters from Standing Rock, who plan on making the trip to west Texas after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
No matter what happens with the Trans-Pecos pipeline, more development is coming to the Big Bend. Last fall, the Apache Corporation announced the discovery of Alpine High, a more-than-400,000-acre shale oil and gas field near the base of the Davis Mountains, part of which includes Balmorhea State Park, the home of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. It’s an oasis in the desert, not least for the numerous endangered desert fishes that swim its fresh waters, but if Apache has its way, it will soon be surrounded by as many as 4,000 horizontal oil and gas wells over the next few years.
Recently, another indigenous-led camp has arrived in the Big Bend, joining Two Rivers. On Sunday, January 15, a separate camp opposing the Apache Corporation’s plans to frack Alpine High officially opened in the nearby town of Toyahvale, drawing dozens of people from around the state. That day, I met with Juan Mancias, the chairman of the Carrizo-Comecrudo tribe and the co-founder of Camp Toyahvale. It was hailing, small pebbles of ice no larger than the head of a pin raining down from the sky, but the mud and the cold didn’t seem to be dissuading anyone.
“What they want to do is turn the whole valley into fracking wells. But if we stop the fracking, there won’t be any need for pipelines,” Mancias said. Apache has already begun exploratory drilling, and a flare from one of the rigs could be seen in the distance. He gestured to the handful of tents scattered all around him. “But we’re going to make a stand here.”
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Esther Wang is a freelance writer based in New York City. You can find her at @estherxlwang and www.estherwang.com.