The Denbury case that caused such a stir on the Texas Supreme Court’s first review of the case, is back before the Court again. In the first Denbury opinion, the Court held that a pipeline seeking to assert eminent domain authority had to make a showing that it was in fact a “common carrier.” The case went back to the trial court which again granted summary judgment for the pipeline company. But the court of appeals reversed, holding that fact issues existed on whether Denbury is a common carrier.
Trans-Pecos Pipeline is pursuing condemnation proceedings to acquire right-of-way for its pipeline, a project of Energy Transfer Partners to build a 143-mile, 42-inch pipeline from Fort Stockton into Mexico. Presidio County landowner John Boerschig is challenging the company’s right to use eminent domain to acquire an easement across his ranch. Last week he sued the company in U.S. District Court in Pecos, contending that Texas laws on eminent domain deny him due process of law in the condemnation process. He argues that pipeline companies asserting the right to use eminent domain should have to prove their right to condemn before they can obtain a judgment awarding an easement. Boerschig’s attorney Renae Hicks said “It’s a no-strings-attached, standard-less delegation of government power to a private entity. There’s no accountability, they do not have to report to anyone.” He argues that a pipeline’s status as a public utility, which under Texas law entitles it to use eminent domain, can be legally challenged only after the condemnation award of the special commissioners appointed to determine the amount owed for the condemned easement. After the commissioners’ award, the pipeline’s right to condemn can be challenged in court, but in the meantime the pipeline has the right to tender the amount awarded by the commissioners into court and begin laying the pipeline on the easement awarded. So the pipeline can be constructed even while the landowner is challenging the company’s condemnation authority.
That is what happened in the latest condemnation case decided by the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury, , 363 S.W.3d 192 (Tex. 2012). In that case, Denbury sought to condemn an easement for a pipeline that would carry carbon dioxide across Texas Rice Land’s property. Texas Rice Land challenged Denbury’s right to condemn an easement; the trial court sustained Denbury’s authority, and it built its easement. But the Supreme Court held that Texas Rice Land had the right to challenge Denbury’s use of eminent domain, whether it was a common carrier. It remanded the case to the trial court for trial on that issue. On remand, the trial court again agreed that Denbury had eminent domain powers, but the Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed and remanded again, 457 S.W.3d 115 (Tex.App.-Beaumont 2015). Denbury has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which granted Denbury’s petition for review on April 1. In the meantime, Denbury has constructed its pipeline across Texas Rice Land’s property and is using it to transport carbon dioxide.
Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury is back before the Texas Supreme Court. The case that caused such controversy when originally decided by that court in 2012, involves when a pipeline company can exercise the right of eminent domain to condemn pipeline easements.
Denbury decided to build a pipeline to carry carbon dioxide from Mississippi to the Hastings Field in South Texas, to inject in the field for tertiary recovery. Denbury sought an easement across land owned by Texas Rice Land Partners, but Texas Rice refused. Denbury sought to condemn an easement across the property, but Texas Rice claimed that Denbury did not have authority to condemn an easement. In its first decision in the case, 363 S.W.3d 192 (Tex. 2012), the Texas Supreme Court held that Texas Rice had raised a fact issue as to whether Denbury had authority to condemn, and it remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
Prior to the Denbury decision, pipeline companies routinely asserted the right to condemn by filing a form with the Texas Railroad Commission, form T-4, checking a box to say that the owner of the pipeline to be constructed elected to be a “common carrier” pipeline. A “common carrier” is a pipeline that holds itself out to transport oil, gas, or in Denbury’s case CO2, for others for hire. In the Denbury decision, the Court said that filing this form was not enough to grant condemnation powers:
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 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.
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.
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!