For most of the meeting, his face was stoic. If you watched carefully, you might have noticed a thin smile crossing his lips as he looked to the commission chair, shaking his head slightly.
But to the dozens of citizen speakers calling him out, one after the next, as a pollutant to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, a destroyer of cultural treasures, and an agent of the greatest environmental crisis in history, what mattered most was that, for once, the man could not ignore them.
Kelcy Warren, billionaire CEO of Energy Transfer Parters (ETP), must not have found the experience pleasant. Appointed as a Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioner by Gov. Greg Abbott after donating at least half a million dollars to his gubernatorial campaign, Warren is best known for his company’s 1,174-mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the subject of months of escalating protests in Standing Rock, N.D. His company also has produced similar, though less-known, outrage in the Big Bend area for using legal loopholes to seize private property in the construction of an export-based gas pipeline.
In a quarterly commission meeting which convened in Austin Thursday, protesters seized the opportunity to stand face-to-face with the man who has become a symbol of corporate greed for environmentalists and Native tribes nationwide. As the commission considered a proposal to construct six petrochemical pipelines through the J.D. Murphee Wildlife Management Area, citizen speakers decried the regulatory body as a fraud, demanding Warren’s immediate resignation on account of his conflict of interest.
“The very presence of Kelcy Warren in this chamber completely illegitimates this body,” one woman shouted from the seat beside me. A handful of game wardens escorted her from the room as she chanted a protest song.
“We believe the creator asked (the) Native people to be keepers of the Earth, and that’s really exactly the job title that you have,” Jackki Hagans of the Society of Native Nations told the commission. “And I really think that for you to be considering any kind of pipeline through parks is really unconscionable. You all know what has been happening in North Dakota and other places in the world. You’ve seen pipeline spills, you’ve seen gas lines blow up, people have been killed, water has been ruined, and yet we’re still deciding to go forward with these types of actions?”
Business woman Colleen Mulvey added, “This plan … is not in the best interest of anyone except direct monetary beneficiaries of the oil and gas industries, who have shown an utter disdain for life, for indigenous culture, and for the environment. Those interests are not those we are here to serve.”
Others centered their comments on climate change.
“This pipeline is just a small part of a larger story that is unfolding,” said one speaker. “It’s really a story of a move from the industrial revolution and an industrial culture to a life-sustaining civilization. We’ll either make it or we won’t.”
Warren barely budged as long-bearded environmentalists, soft-spoken senior citizens, young businessmen, and tribal leaders pleaded with him and the rest of the commission to consider their consciences.
Initially, the presiding commissioner interrupted speakers when they targeted Warren specifically, but eventually only speakers and their applause were heard.
Then, over an hour into the speeches, a murmur rippled through the room as Warren reached for his microphone for the first time. Even the citizen speaker he addressed seemed startled. Pete Hefflin, a member of the Society of Native Nations, had been talking in a quiet but intentional voice about ETP’s alleged destruction of archaeological sites in West Texas and North Dakota.
“It hurts,” he had said. “And I have no … I have no anger toward you. All I do is I pray for you. I pray for you and your family. Hopefully one day, maybe today, you can give me the answer: Do you think that it’s right to go and dig up burial grounds, sacred burial grounds and desecrate them?”
“No, sir, I do not,” Warren replied.
“Huh?” Hefflin asked.
“No sir, I do not think that’s appropriate,” Warren said. “I think that would be bad.”
“But you have been doing that.”
“No sir, obviously I don’t believe so.”
“We have proof that you have been doing that,” Hefflin responded. “And I’d be glad to meet up with you and my organization … I’d be glad to sit down with you and show you the facts, if you will give me the respect.”
“Yes sir, I will.”
The oil tycoon and protester agreed to exchange information. Hefflin sat down. No one else offered to speak, perhaps too surprised to approach the podium, and the commission said it would withdraw for a five-minute break. Twenty or 30 minutes later, the commission returned.
“In light of what I heard here today, I believe it would be appropriate for me to recuse myself of this vote,” Warren said, following a similar statement from another commissioner. That left less than a quorum, so the vote was postponed until the next meeting.
Evelyn Merz, conservation committee chair for the Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club, has been coming to the commission meetings for years but said she’s “never seen someone recuse themselves of a vote before.”
“That is very refreshing that the (citizen) concern could have results,” she told the Rivard Report. “It’s good that when people show up, they make a difference.”
Protesters remained skeptical of Warren’s motives or whether he would follow through in his commitment to meet with Hefflin. Without a similar presence in the next meeting, the commission could just as easily go ahead with the pipeline. But to the approximately 200 activists who attended, there was something invigorating about the chance to speak on a level playing field with someone of such immense wealth and power.
“I’ve been fighting against mega project development for a long time,” organizer Tane Ward said. “I have never been that close to the CEO of a company that I’m fighting against as I have been at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission today, and looked them right right in the eye and (told) them they have no honor. I have always wanted to do that.”