The Texas Railroad Commission has adopted amendments to its pipeline permits rule, 16 TAC Sec. 3.70. The amendments require pipeline companies to submit documentation to support their claim that they will operate the line as a common carrier or gas utility.
In Texas, pipelines have the right to condemn pipeline easements for lines that are common-carrier or gas-utility lines. Until the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury in 2011, pipelines assumed that all they had to do in order to exercise the right of eminent domain was file a form at the RRC – a Form T-4 – stating that the proposed line would act as a common carrier or gas utility. In Denbury, the court said that filing the form is not enough.
The court in Denbury first held that a pipeline does not acquire condemnation authority merely by obtaining a permit from the Railroad Commission and subjecting itself to that agency’s jurisdiction as a common carrier. The court then held that in order for a pipeline to have condemnation power it must serve a public purpose, and to serve a public purpose, “a reasonable probability must exist, at or before the time common-carrier status is challenged, that the pipeline will serve the public by transporting gas for customers who will either retain ownership of their gas or sell it to parties other than the carrier.” Once a landowner challenges its right to exercise eminent domain, “the burden falls upon the pipeline company to establish its common-carrier bona fides if it wishes to exercise the power of eminent domain.” The court said that the question of whether the pipeline is dedicated to a “public use” is ultimately a judicial question.
The rule amendments adopted by the RRC last week were proposed by the pipeline industry and were apparently an attempt to address the problems created for them by the Denbury decision. If a pipeline company wants to classify a proposed new line as a common-carrier or gas-utility line, it must include in its permit application a sworn statement “providing the operator’s factual basis supporting the classification and purpose being sought for the pipeline,” and “documentation to provide support for the classification and purpose being sought for the pipeline ….”
The RRC received many comments to the proposed rule, and its discussion of those comments reveals much about the RRC’s intent in adopting the rule amendments. The RRC’s discussion makes clear that it does not intend to get involved in the Denbury debate:
A T-4 Permit to Operate an intrastate pipeline in Texas is literally and specifically a permit to operate a pipeline. It is not a permit to construct a pipeline, nor is it authorization for a pipeline operator to exercise eminent domain in the acquisition of pipeline right-of-way.
The permitting process does not determine property rights. … Litigation over the rights of a property owner or a pipeline’s easement is not a Commission matter; it is a courthouse matter.
The Commission disagrees with assertions made by [Texas Southern Cattle Raisers Association] and other commenters that the Court in Denbury suggested the Commission should expand its processing of applications for T-4 permits to encompass investigation and adversarial testing of, particularly, the common carrier assertions made by T-4 applicants. In fact, the Court stated, “the parties point to no regulation or enabling legislation directing the Commission to investigate and determine whether a pipeline will in fact serve the public.”
The new permitting process requires a pipeline operator to substantiate the basis for the classification sought. … Property owners will know the basis on which a pipeline operator claims common carrier status much earlier in the permitting process.
The rule amendments, and the RRC’s responses to comments, can be found here:
Denbury has given landowners the ability to challenge pipeline companies’ assertions of eminent domain authority. That has slowed the process of pipeline right-of-way acquisition and made the process more expensive for pipelines. If pipeline companies intended these rule amendments to address those issues, I’m not sure they succeeded.