Last month, Kelcy Warren, a politically connected pipeline mogul, notched a big win when his bid to build a nearly 150-mile natural gas pipeline through the Big Bend region of West Texas won approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, clearing the way for construction.
But among at least one group dear to his heart, his approval ratings are mixed: Texas musicians.
The Dallas billionaire, who plays guitar, has lured big names to his label and his festival, including, this year, John Fogerty and local celebrity singer Bob Schneider.
But some musicians aren’t happy with his pipeline plans and are playing at fundraisers opposing it.
Environmentalists and some living along the Trans-Pecos pipeline’s route worry about the unsightly gash they say will be struck across the landscape — and that the pipeline’s construction will set a precedent for other industrial activity in a relatively unspoiled region.
Grammy-winning Austin-based singer Patty Griffin played the Cherokee Creek Festival in 2014, but last summer performed at a fundraiser for the Big Bend Conservation Alliance in Marfa along with Austin singer-songwriter James McMurtry.
“I met Kelcy and liked him a lot; he is self-made and seemed shy, humble and generous,” Griffin said. “But I imagine that owning so much pristine natural acreage might contribute to his not being in the same place as others who don’t — whose access to this kind of nature is through lands protected by our government, parks created by earlier generations well-versed in the destructive practices and impact of industry unchecked on our natural environment.”
Warren, who declined to comment for this story, was appointed last year by Gov. Greg Abbott to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, a common reward for top donors to the governor.
Warren has contributed $705,000 since 2013 to Texans for Greg Abbott.
Overall, he has given nearly $1.6 million in the 2016 election cycle, all to Republicans.
His proposed pipeline would come within roughly 25 miles of the western portion of Big Bend Ranch State Park, the largest of the state park properties overseen by Warren and the other commissioners.
Once built, the pipeline will carry as much as 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas a day from near Fort Stockton southwest to Presidio, on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Warren’s company, Energy Transfer Partners, part of an international consortium working on the pipeline, says it will pay $7.1 million annually in property taxes to the three counties the pipeline traverses, and estimates the creation of hundreds of jobs to build the pipeline, which will be buried at least four feet underground.
But some residents of nearby Fort Davis, Alpine and Marfa are against the project, fearing it could be a harbinger of more industrial activity in a largely pristine part of the state. The construction of the pipeline will involve damage to grasslands and creeks as a right-of-way as much as 125 feet wide is cut for the length of the project, according to the Big Bend Conservation Alliance.
Energy Transfer Partners, which operates pipelines across many states, has been working hard in the halls of power to promote the pipeline. The company spent as much as $700,000 between 2013 and 2015 on Austin lobbyists; over the last five years, the company spent at least $2.5 million on lobbyists in Washington.
The pipeline will cross the Rio Grande and feed utilities in Mexico. In early January, federal regulators determined the international crossing wouldn’t significantly affect the environment. And in May, they authorized a border-crossing facility to import and export natural gas.
Already, large yards for stockpiling pipe have been prepared in Brewster and Presidio counties.
But in Austin, outside of the Capitol, Warren is known chiefly for his ties to the music community, through his ownership of the label Music Road Records and the studio Cedar Creek Recording. Kris Kristofferson recorded his upcoming two-volume “Cedar Creek Sessions” at the studio last year. The label has mostly released records by lesser-known artists, though a Jackson Browne tribute in 2014 featured tracks by Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett and more.
Last month, his music festival’s lineup featured national acts such as Fogerty, Dwight Yoakam and Bruce Hornsby, along with a few locals including Schneider and Jimmy LaFave, who helped Warren set up Music Road.
LaFave defended Warren’s record, pointing out that the music festival benefits children’s charities.
“I could give probably a hundred examples of something good Kelcy’s done, but they’ve made up their minds about the pipeline,” LaFave said of the opposition groups. “I’m not going to change any opinions with those people.
“I think it’s going to be built, regardless. And he’s the guy to do it if someone’s got to do it. We need more people like Kelcy Warren in the energy business, because he really cares about the environment.”
In the Austin area, other musicians have taken part in anti-pipeline shows to raise money and awareness, including a “No Pipeline Party” in Fischer last summer.
The guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb who has lived part-time in West Texas for the past two years, has tried to lead musicians against the pipeline.
The pipeline is due to cut through the private property of dozens of landowners, by dint of eminent domain. Some of them have entered into legal battles against the company.
“Nobody is interested in stopping this pipeline in the sense of, ‘Let’s shut down the industry,’” Newcomb says. “It is purely, ‘Let’s reroute the pipeline through existing easements.’ We have this area that is one of the jewels of Texas.”
In an email, a spokesman for Warren’s company said pipeline routes “are determined based on safety and constructability” and said construction will begin shortly.
“Mr. Warren has a great appreciation of music and musical artists,” said the spokeswoman, Vicki Granado, in response to a question about musicians opposing his pipeline.
Coyne Gibson, a member of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance who lives in the Fort Davis area, said it’s important to connect the dots between Austin’s music community and Warren’s involvement in the Trans-Pecos pipeline.
“Musicians in Austin, musicians affiliated with his studio, people who support his record label need to know,” Gibson said. “They need to look into this guy, they need to know” about the pipeline.
Gibson said he and others are asking federal regulators to reconsider their decision.
“It’s not a done deal,” Gibson said.