Following a vote by Erath County commissioners to deny access to the right of way along County Road 392 for an oil and natural gas transmission line last week, local investor and businessman Pat Wilson is reluctantly preparing for a fight.
He admits he doesn’t want a war waged on the county road he has called home for the last 30 years and against his friends, neighbors and county officials standing in opposition, nor does he want the battle played out in court, where taxpayers would foot the bill for the county’s defense.
But if the only option is for the county to stand their ground in court, County Judge Tab Thompson said officials would back the commissioners’ decision.
“If they feel that is an option they (Wilson and Tony Heady) need to take, then our system is set up for that,” Thompson said last week.
The county has a budgeted allowance for potential litigation and also has the representation of County Attorney Lisa Pence.
For Wilson and Heady, who owns the land where the well is located, the problems began when the business partners found potential in the well. While the well is promising, the question of how to get the gas to market presented several obstacles.
“When you are talking oil and gas, wells in Erath County primarily produce gas,” Wilson said. “Oil can be trucked from the site, but gas has to be delivered through a pipeline.”
To make the transmission possible, Wilson said about two miles of pipeline would have to be installed to work with existing lines on Wilson’s property.
Originally, the pair planned to run a pipeline from the well into a line that supplies four local cities including Stephenville and Dublin with gas, but Wilson said that plan was halted by requirements put in place to protect public health and safety. When tapping into the existing pipeline, a station would have to be installed to add a detectable odor to the natural gas.
“I am just the little guy,” Wilson said. “That option is so costly, I don’t want to do it. I am an independent investor. It is my money not that of a large company backed by shareholders.”
The partners then turned to neighboring property owners who were hesitant to have the line buried on their property, so the well owners approached county officials about running the pipeline in the county’s right of way.
Wilson said the decision to deny the request was ultimately that of Commissioner Lynn Tidwell, who presides over Precinct 2, where the well is located. But at last week’s meeting, Commissioners Randy Lowe and Jim Pack backed the decision and all three commissioners voted against the request. Joe Brown was absent from the meeting on Aug. 10.
Lowe cited issues in dealing with older pipelines in his precinct and said at one site a line was struck by county crews and caused an explosion.
But for Wilson it’s like comparing apples and oranges. He said the proposed pipeline would not be high pressure and made of metal, which would create a spark if struck by a bulldozer or other equipment and lead to a potential explosion. Wilson said it would be made of durable plastic, which would simply puncture and leak small amounts of gas into the air, and could easily be patched or repaired if damaged.
In addition, Wilson said CR 392 is receiving a face-lift Wednesday and the new, paved surface would no longer require county crews bringing in grating and other equipment. Heady said with the resurfacing in progress, the time is perfect for laying the pipeline.
Still, county officials are standing by their decision.
“The commissioners put in a tremendous amount of time and effort evaluating and studying the situation,” Thompson said. “In the end, they came to the conclusion that allowing access would not be good for Erath County and public health and safety.”
While Wilson said he is left with only one option, filing a lawsuit against the county, the businessman who has continued to keep his money at home in Erath County technically has two. The first being to sell a portion of the pipeline to a public utility company with eminent domain rights to gain access, which Wilson said is not an option. Although Wilson said there is an East Texas utility company ready to buy into the pipeline, he knows the venture would not be in the best interest of Erath County.
“My money stays in Erath County. If I am forced to sell to a company based in East Texas, we all know where that money will go,” he said.
In addition, Wilson said condemning neighboring properties to gain access is not his way of doing business.
“If it comes down to condemning the property, those guys (utility company representatives) will not be neighbors and friends,” Wilson said. “But these are my neighbors and I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to make my neighbors mad.”
Wilson’s investments in Erath hit a boom in the 1980s with developments including the Holiday Inn and Bosque River Center on Washington Street, to name a few. Although Wilson no longer owns the developments, they continue to bring money into the local economy, and while the partners admit they will profit once the pipeline is installed, they say Erath County would also reap the rewards.
“Granted, I’m going to benefit, but so is everyone else in Erath County,” Heady said.
He said many homes in the county use natural gas and also said they even offered the county a chance to profit through tax revenue and royalties.
Thompson confirmed that an offer was made for the county to share in the royalties, but he felt that private citizens should be the ones to profit rather than tapping into a public right of way.