Naked City

Dewhurst Eases Route for Longhorn

Critics of the Longhorn Pipeline are quickly running out of arrows to fling against the controversial plan to pump 72,000 barrels of gasoline a day through the 52-year-old line, which runs through South Austin on its way from Houston to El Paso. The coalition of groups fighting the pipeline held a press conference Tuesday afternoon outside the Stephen F. Austin state office building to plead with Land Commissioner (and lieutenant governor candidate) David Dewhurst not to grant the deal's necessary state easements. Their efforts appeared futile, since Dewhurst's office announced he had already signed the easement permits Longhorn Partners Pipeline Ltd. needs to open the pipeline. "Longhorn is a federally regulated pipeline and it has now met all applicable federal health and safety standards," Dewhurst said in a statement released late Tuesday. Federal law preempts state law.

"Commissioner Dewhurst has more of a responsibility than simply determining if this meets federal law," said Craig Smith of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. "He must consider the safety of Texans."

The recent fiscal troubles of Williams Companies, which holds the largest partnership share in Longhorn Partners and is the operator of the pipeline, also provided new fodder for opponents. Williams' stock price stood near $30 per share last August, but on Tuesday closed at $2.41 -- a tumble that's left the firm short on cash and closely eyeing its bottom line. Last week, Williams' officials conceded that due to the fiscal crunch, and what spokesman Kelly Swan termed "logistical problems," the pipeline's opening will be pushed back from Aug. 15 to Oct. 1. "I view this as a temporary delay," Swan said.

On Tuesday, Smith of the BS/EACD posited that financial problems would lead Williams to cut corners on the pipeline. The Conservation District and two landowners are still considering an appeal of U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks' ruling last week that a second and more thorough environmental study of the pipeline couldn't be conducted. The city of Austin was also part of that suit and is mulling over an appeal. Other Longhorn critics questioned whether Williams would still be responsible for the pipeline and potential accidents if the company files for bankruptcy. Swan responded that Williams is just one of five Longhorn partners (others include British Petroleum and ExxonMobil) and that Williams' cash problems won't impede operations or safety along the pipeline.

While the goals of Tuesday's news conference were ostensibly to put pressure on Dewhurst and to criticize Williams, one member of the anti-Longhorn posse said the event's true purpose was to prod the city into appealing Sparks' decision to the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- perhaps the coalition's last shot to torpedo the pipeline.

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