Google has teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to detect leaks in gas lines in the Los Angeles Area, Boston, Indianapolis, Staten Island, Syracuse, and Burlington, Vermont. Google attached methane detectors to the cars it uses to create its street map images and has mapped the locations where it found levels of methane high enough to indicate pipeline methane leaks. A great use of new technology for a public purpose. View Google’s maps here. EDF has teamed up with industry and scientists to attack methane emissions, part of EDF’s efforts to combat global warming.
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.
The Texas Railroad Commission has published a proposed rule that will change how pipelines are classified as “common carriers” and “gas utilities.” That classification determines whether pipelines can exercise the power of eminent domain — the power to condemn rights-of-way for pipelines.
In 2011, the Texas Supreme Court held in Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, LLC that the Railroad Commission’s method of classifying pipelines as common carriers and gas utilities was not sufficient to grant them eminent domain authority. The court held that, in order for a pipeline to have condemnation powers, it must serve a “public purpose,” and that in order for a pipeline 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 status as a common carrier, “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 held that the RRC’s policy of classifying pipelines as common carriers or gas utilities based solely on the pipelines’ checking of a box on a form filed with the RRC was not sufficient to establish the public purpose of the line.
Since Denbury, the pipeline industry has struggled to find a way to efficiently establish pipelines’ common-carrier status without having to litigate the issue with every landowner it wants to cross over. Initially the industry sought legislation authorizing the RRC to have one hearing to establish that a proposed new line will in fact qualify for common-carrier status. Under the bill, that determination would then be binding on all landowners whose property will be crossed by the pipeline. Those landowners would be given the opportunity to participate in the hearings; notice of the hearings would be given by publication in local newspapers. The Texas Farm Bureau, the forestry industry, and other landowner groups opposed the bill. Most major oil and gas associations favored the bill. The bill never made it out of committee.
The RRC’s proposed rule essentially proposes to do the same thing that the failed bill did, with one big difference. Under the proposed rule, whenever a pipeline wants to build a new line it must file an application for a permit with the RRC. In that application, the pipeline must submit “a sworn statement from the pipeline applicant providing the operator’s factual basis supporting the classification [as a common carrier or gas utility] and purpose being sought for the pipeline,” and “documentation to provide support for the classification and purpose being sought for the pipeline.” Once the application is complete, the RRC has 30 days to grant or deny the permit. If the permit is granted and the requested classification is approved, presumably the pipeline will have established its right to condemn right-of-way. At least that is what the pipeline industry is hoping.
The difference between the failed bill and the proposed rule is that no public notice of the permit application is given. Without public notice, there is no opportunity for those affected by the proposed pipeline to question the evidence submitted by the pipeline for the “public purpose” of the proposed line.
Comments on the rule must be submitted by August 25 to Rules Coordinator, Office of General Counsel, Railroad Commission of Texas, P.O. Box 12967, Austin, Texas 78711-2967.
I recently ran across this very good article on the tax treatment of payments received for granting of pipeline easements:
Julia Trigg-Crawford, a landowner in Lamar County, has asked the Texas Supreme Court to hear her case arguing that TransCanada has no right to condemn her property for the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Crawford Family Farm Partnership v. TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P., No. 13-0866. Although other segments of the pipeline await federal approval, the segment from Oklahoma across Texas has now been completed and is in operation. Crawford lost her case in the trial court and the Texarkana Court of Appeals, 409 S.W.3d 908, and has asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court asked TransCanada to reply to Crawford’s petition, and Texarkana filed its reply on February 6.
Crawford’s argument is that Texas law does not grant eminent domain powers to interstate pipelines. TransCanada argues that Crawford’s appeal presents the same issues as Rhinoceros Ventures Group, Inc. v. TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P., 388 S.W.3d 305 (Tex. App.–Beaumont 2012, pet. denied), which the Supreme Court declined to review.
Crawford has become a symbol of opposition to the Keystone pipeline, drawing national attention to her cause.
Julia Trigg Crawford has waged a well-publicized fight to prevent condemnation of an easement across her farm for the XL Keystone Pipeline. On August 27, the 6th Court of Appeals in Texarkana denied her appeal of TransCanada Keystone Pipeline’s award of an easement over her property. Crawford has vowed to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion says that Ms. Crawford had two arguments: first, that the Texas statutes granting pipelines condemnation authority do not apply to interstate pipelines; and second, that Keystone had failed to meet the showing required by the Texas Supreme Court in Texas Riceland Partners v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas, 363 S.W.3d 192, 202 (Tex. 2012) that the pipeline must show “a reasonable probability … that the pipeline will at some point after construction serve the public by transporting gas for one or more customers who will either retain ownership of their gas or sell it to parties other than the carrier.” The Texarkana court held that Keystone had met that burden. The court also held that the relevant Texas statutes do grant condemnation authority to interstate common carrier pipelines.
The portion of the XL Keystone pipeline from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas is nearing completion. That segment of the pipeline has been able to proceed even though the Obama administration has not yet approved the segment of the system that would carry heavy crude from Canada across the northern segment of the XL Pipeline system.
The Supreme Court’s Denbury opinion initially caused significant consternation in the pipeline industry and generated unsuccessful efforts in the last Texas legislative session to amend Texas condemnation statutes to facilitate pipeline condemnations. The Crawford case is an indication that the industry’s fears that Denbury would significantly impair pipeline construction in Texas are unfounded and that Texas appellate courts have been able to apply Denbury without much trouble.
State Impact Texas’ Mose Buchele has a good article on increased litigation over pipeline condemnations. My partner Bill Christian, who represents landowners in condemnation matters, is quoted in the article. Even has his picture!
Mose Buchele has written a series of articles, also aired on KUT, about the pipeline industry’s failed efforts to make it easier for pipelines to exercise the power of eminent domain after the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd. v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Tex., LLC, 363 S.W.3d 192, 198 (Tex. 2012), about which I have written previously. Good reading. Links are below.
Colleen Schreiber has written an excellent article in the June 13 edition of Livestock Weekly, “Landowners Hold Off Oil and Gas Lobby on Common Carrier Bills,” describing the blow-by-blow negotiations and lobbying in the pipeline industry’s efforts to “solve” the problems created by the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Tex. Rice Land Partners, Ltd. v. Denbury Green Pipeline-Tex., LLC, 363 S.W.3d 192, 198 (Tex. 2012).
Lined up on one side: pipeline lobbyists supporting bills by Rep. Tryon Lewis, R. Odessa, in the House, and Robert Duncan, R. Lubbock, in the Senate, including the powerful Koch brothers, owners of Koch Enterprises.
On the other side: Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Land and Mineral Owners’ Association, the Bass family, and plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Ultimately, all bills failed. The pipeline industry asked the Governor to add their issue to the special session but, so far at least, pipelines have been overshadowed by abortion bills and financing of higher education projects.
In Denbury, the Supreme Court surprised the pipeline industry by holding that they actually have to prove their proposed line will be a “common carrier” before they can use the power of eminent domain to condemn right-of-way. This left the pipelines, in their view, subject to interminable delays and suits by landowners unhappy with the pipeline routes, the terms of their proposed easements and the compensation being offered.
To “fix” the problem, the pipelines proposed that a pipeline’s common-carrier status be determined once for each pipeline, at a hearing held before the Texas Railroad Commission. Landowner lobbyists agreed to negotiate and agreed to consider the concept of a single hearing that would determine common-carrier status for a pipeline; but they wanted the hearing to be before the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH), rather than the RRC; they wanted to be sure all landowners likely to be affected got notice of the hearing; and they wanted strict standards to determine whether a pipeline qualifies as a common carrier. In the end, the biggest sticking point was whether the hearings would be before the RRC or SOAH. Pipelines obviously favored the RRC; the landowners, believing that the RRC would not protect their interests, favored SOAH. (Most administrative hearings related to state agencies in Texas are held before administrative judges at SOAH. The RRC is one of the few agencies that has kept the right to have hearings before its own administrative judges, called hearings examiners.)
A bill might have been hammered out, but late in the game plaintiffs’ lawyers, led by Wayne Reaud, a lawyer who made a fortune suing tobacco companies, weighed in and refused to compromise. Reaud at the time was fighting a condemnation action brought by CrossTex for a pipeline that would cross lands he owns in Jefferson County. Reaud claimed that CrossTex should not have the right to survey on his land until it proved that it is a common carrier. He sought and obtained a temporary injunction to keep CrossTex off his property. CrossTex appealed that injunction to the 9th Court of Appeals in Beaumont, and the appeal was pending when the pipeline bills were being considered. (The Beaumont court has since issued its opinion affirming the trial court’s decision to grant the injunction. The opinion can be viewed here.) The end result was that the pipeline bills died in committee and never came up for a vote in either the Senate or the House.
Underlying the debate over the pipeline legislation is the perception by those representing landowners’ interests that the RRC is not the place to have hearings on the qualifications of pipelines to exercise eminent domain, and the insistence by the pipeline interests that the RRC be the judge. The RRC has jurisdiction to enforce other laws affecting landowners’ interests, and their experience has been that the RRC is not an agency friendly to landowners’ complaints.
The pipeline industry bill intended to “fix” the issues raised by Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Pipeline, appears to be dead in the Texas legislature. The issue: requiring pipelines that assert the power of eminent domain to prove that they qualify as common carriers. The Texas Supreme Court held in Denbury that simply filing a form with the Texas Railroad Commission would not suffice; the pipeline has to show that it will actually use the pipeline to transport oil or gas for hire. This requirement could substantially slow the condemnation process, requiring pipelines to prove their common-carrier status each time they sue to condemn a right-of-way.
The solution proposed by the pipelines: have one hearing, at the Texas Railroad Commission, to establish that a proposed new line will in fact qualify for common-carrier status. That determination will then be binding on all landowners whose property will be crossed by the pipeline. Those landowners would be given the opportunity to participate in the hearings; notice of the hearings would be given by publication in local newspapers. The Texas Farm Bureau, the forestry industry, and other landowner groups opposed the bill. Most major oil and gas asociations favored the bill.
The bill, HB 2748, was defeated Friday on a procedural point of order raised by Democrats that moved it back to committee. Rural Republican representatives were faced with a difficult decision whether to support the bill, in light of opposition by rural landowners. Time is running out before the end of the session and it may be difficult to revive the bill.
Another bill, HB 3547, would establish common carrier status by a hearing before the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). Industry representatives would prefer such hearings to be before the Railroad Commission, a friendlier venue. HB 3547 has not yet reached the floor. Similar bills in the Senate do not appear to be moving.