Maya Sanchez is the mayor of San Elizario, a newly incorporated city on the southwest Texas border near Cuidad Juárez, Mexico. Its demograhic is predominantly Latinx and nearly half are foreign-born. Many are farmers or ranchers. Five pipelines already pass through her city, worrying residents about what a spill or explosion would do to their land. These lines were built before San Elizario incorporated in 2013. Now, two more are coming: Energy Transfer Partner’s Comanche Trail Pipeline and ONEOK Partner’s Roadrunner Pipeline.
The Comanche Trail Pipeline is 195 miles long and will carry natural gas from Fort Stockton, Texas to Mexico. The Roadrunner will be roughly 200 miles long and bring more natural gas to Mexican markets from Coyanosa, Texas.
In this midst of all of this development, neither company informed Mayor Sanchez—or her constituents—about their projects. When Mayor Sanchez found out, it was too late to stop them. Below she tells Colorlines the story of these energy projects, their inevitable success and her ongoing lucha in the face of a pro-fossil fuel Trump Presidency.
It was June 11, 2015, when I received the call from Sen. José Rodriguez’s office. Sito Negron, the senator’s communications director, asked me if the city had a stance on two natural gas pipelines proposed to go through San Elizario. “Pipelines?” I thought. “What pipelines?” Then he told me: Energy Transfer Partners and ONEOK were apparently proposing to put pipelines through my city.
I remember that conversation clearly because just three days later, a 42-inch pipeline owned by Energy Transfer Partners exploded outside Cuero, Texas. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. There was no human error. Basically, earth put pressure on part of the line, causing it to dip and, ultimately, crack. That’s all it needed to explode.
"What could happen to my community?" I thought.
Right away, I started trying to find out what this was all about. Neither of the companies had reached out to me, so I sought them. I asked for maps, wrote emails and made calls, but they weren’t very receptive. Energy Transfer Partners eventually told me they didn’t reach out to the City of San Elizario because they weren’t going to go through city limits or any city-owned land. So I told them: “Well, on the contrary, from what I can tell, from the information presented to me, the pipeline will be relatively close to our city limits and very close to our high school.”
I came to find out once I saw the actual construction beginning that yes, indeed, the pipeline was going through city limits. And, really, there was nothing I could do at that point. I went through what our legal process allows: I filed a motion to intervene, requested town halls and reached out to elected officials. Everyone I met with expressed opposition. The El Paso County Water District filed a motion to intervene, too. Even then, the district struggled to hold Energy Transfer to stronger regulations and safety measures.
The two parties, the water district and Energy Transfer, reached a $5.4 million settlement allotted to the county, and the company agreed to better regulations such as adding concrete lining to canals where the remaining pipe would be placed underneath. But I still worry about water contamination and explosions. Our landowners have felt bullied throughout this process, too.
We have a big task to try and improve the quality of life of our people, including the many residents who will also be impacted if things go awry with these lines. It’s a challenge for us to help shape and grow our community for the future. The natural gas running through these lines won’t even benefit San Elizario. If it would, I still wouldn’t support these projects unless my city did. Together, we make these decisions.
But the decision was ultimately up to regulatory agencies, that, I think, lacked oversight. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission didn’t deem it necessary to intervene when I reached out to them. Locally, on the municipal and county level, we had 100 percent support in fighting the pipelines—but not on the state or federal level. All the companies had to do to get their required permits was file an application.
Now, the current president is steamrolling larger pipeline projects like Keystone XL and Dakota Access. I was prepared for this, so his actions didn’t surprise me. I was surprised, however, by how fast he took action on these energy projects. Donald Trump prioritized the pipelines even over the border wall action. That’s saying something. Given his connections to Energy Transfer Partners though, I suppose I shouldn’t have been suprised.
I know now—more than ever—that we need change. And I’ll stay committed to that. If that means my citizens must create encampments or engage in protest, I encourage it. If that’s what it’ll take for us to start taking these issues with greater importance, so be it. At the end of the day, my goal is for our government to implement better oversight so that other mayors don’t have to wake up one morning to find that two pipelines will run through their city—and there’s nothing they can do about it.