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Home News Headlines Dozens of Texas landowners facing property condemnation lawsuits after pipeline gets federal approval

Dozens of Texas landowners facing property condemnation lawsuits after pipeline gets federal approval

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An energy company building a pipeline through three counties in the Trans-Pecos region of the state recently served 45 landowners with condemnation suits, the latest in a series of battles that pits traditional Texas values of private property rights versus energy interests.

The Trans-Pecos pipeline will run 143 miles from Fort Stockton to Presidio, where it will cross under the Rio Grande River into Mexico, which recently opened its energy sector to private companies. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) will build the pipeline, which cuts through some of the wildest land Texas has to offer. This being Texas, nearly all of that land is private.

A coalition of ranchers, private property advocates and environmentalists formed the Big Bend Conservation Alliance to oppose the pipeline, but last month the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) signed off on the final 1,100 feet of the pipeline, which is the part that crosses under the Rio Grande into Mexico. That was the alliance’s last hope.

“While most of us are likely disgusted, along with a host of similar emotions, we already knew FERC never met a pipeline it didn’t like and that this was the most likely outcome,” the alliance said in a statement.

The alliance had asked for FERC to regulate the entire pipeline, since it will end up in another state or, in this case, country, but FERC determined it only had jurisdiction of the interstate part of the project — the part that crosses into Mexico — and that the rest is an intrastate pipeline, which means it’s governed by the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC).

According to RRC, Texas has more than 425,939 miles of pipeline, or about one sixth of all the pipeline mileage in the United States. In a state where two-thirds of the land is privately owned, conflict is inevitable. The Keystone XL Pipeline ignited similar reactions — and outcomes — for opponents last year. The part of Keystone pipeline that runs through Texas resulted in 80 condemnation suits against landowners.

Under the state’s current eminent domain law, a government or corporation can take private land, even if the landowner is not willing to sell it, if the project is for the “public good” or if it is made available to businesses for a fee. The company applies as a “common carrier” with the RRC and is thereby granted authority to take land. Currently, a company gains common carrier status simply by checking the appropriate box on its application to the commission.

Pipeline companies and advocates insist that the pipelines are needed and that the regulating process gives landowners the right to challenge a pipeline operation’s claim as a common carrier. Some landowners and private property advocates believe the condemnor has all the power in the eminent domain process, and points to results from battles involving the Keystone XL and Trans-Pecos pipelines as evidence.

James Spriggs, a 70-year old Texas rancher with 4,400 acres south of Marfa, told the Texas Observer last month that he tried to negotiate with ETP in lieu of a court fight. When Spriggs asked for more than a one-time payment of $7,000 for a 50-foot easement over a mile or so of his property, the company filed suit.

“The land is worth 10 times what they’re offering,” Spriggs told the Observer. “You spend your life fighting for a piece of a piece of property and they treat you like a second-class citizen. It isn’t right at all.”

In March, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick directed the Senate Committee on State Affairs to study ways to ensure landowners are compensated fairly after landowners complained of being “lowballed” by the energy companies’ compensations.

“Landowners feel they’re not getting a fair shake and their rights are being ignored,” Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening told the committee, adding that many landowners shy away from challenging the companies’ offers because they have to finance their own legal fees.

“We think requiring condemnors to pay the costs and fees a landowner incurs in instances of low-ball offers would provide better balance,” he said.

Lawmakers filed four bills aimed at reforming eminent domain law in the last session of the legislature, but none  of them made it into law.

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