Protesters opening camps to protest West Texas drilling and pipeline

Tetra fish swarm a swimmer as they are fed in the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park in Toyhvale, Texas. Environmentalists worry that drilling may contaminate the spring.
Tetra fish swarm a swimmer as they are fed in the spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park in Toyhvale, Texas. Environmentalists worry that drilling may contaminate the spring. AP archives

Pipeline and drilling opponents will open three camps in the high desert north of Big Bend National Park over the next week or so, hoping to attract hundreds of protesters to West Texas to block a pipeline and the development of recently discovered oil and gas fields.

The organizers aim to follow the example of the hundreds of people who traveled to North Dakota, camping out and demonstrating for months to stop —at least for now — the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline, which would have carried oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota to Midwestern pipeline networks that connect to the Gulf Coast refineries. The Obama administration decided not to grant the permit needed to finish the project; the incoming Trump administration, however, has pledged to give the pipeline the green light.

An environmental advocacy group began working three weeks ago on the first West Texas camp, near Alpine, to protest a pipeline being built for Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, the company building Dakota Access. The Trans-Pecos line would carry natural gas from the Permian Basin to Mexico. Pickets were arrested outside a pipeline equipment yard this month.

The same group, the Big Bend Defense Coalition, is opening a second camp farther south near the ghost town of Casa Piedra, close to Big Bend Ranch State Park. The Society of Native Nations, an American Indian advocacy group based in San Antonio that was instrumental in the North Dakota protests at Standing Rock, is helping organize it. They’re calling it the Two Rivers Camp and expect 200 to 300 over the next month or so. It opens Friday with plans to target the Trans-Pecos line.

We’re going to get Toyahvale on the map, finally. ... Wish it were for better reasons

Neta Rhyne of Toyahvale

“We have people coming in from North Dakota already,” said Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations. “We have to open up this weekend.”

Energy Transfer Partners did not reply to a request for comment.

The third camp is opening in Toyahvale, home to the famous spring and pool of Balmorhea State Park, aiming to stop the development of nearby oil and gas fields by Apache Corp. The Houston company said in September that it had discovered 15 billion barrels of oil and gas around Balmorhea and said it could drill as many as 3,000 wells over the next two decades.

Residents have raised concerns that drilling and hydraulic fracturing around the area springs could contaminate the water and damage other natural resources. Several have vowed to fight.

“We’re going to get Toyahvale on the map, finally,” resident Neta Rhyne said. “Wish it were for better reasons.”

Rhyne and her husband own about 400 acres there, abutting the state park, and are designating 30 acres for the new camp.

Rhyne said she and a few volunteers are clearing tumbleweeds off the land now and building a gate in the property’s perimeter fence. They hauled in portable restrooms but plan to build composting toilets. They hope to light their first campfire on Jan. 7, she said, marking the official opening of the camp.

Four campers have already arrived, Rhyne said, one from Austin and three from the Standing Rock protests.

In response, Apache said that “the safe and responsible development of natural resources” is its top priority. It is working with the University of Texas at Arlington on the first independent baseline water study in the region. UTA chemist Kevin Schug described the partnership as an “exciting opportunity” to work with an industry partner that is drilling in an area with what he called an “extremely sensitive ecology.” The area includes natural springs that are a crucial agricultural water source.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.