Pipeline session: Who draws the line on eminent domain?
November 9th, 2011
Lincoln, NE – Public discussion of regulating oil pipelines continued in the Legislature on Tuesday. Hearings were held on proposals to change the state’s eminent domain laws, and to let the governor decide on routes.
The hearing on eminent domain concerned a legal tool companies can use to acquire land or easements when they can’t negotiate an agreement with landowners. Nebraska has allowed oil companies to use eminent domain since at least the 1960s. But some landowners along the proposed Keystone XL route have complained they felt threatened by letters sent by Keystone’s parent company TransCanada. Those letters declared the company would start eminent domain proceedings in 30 days if they didn’t accept the company’s offer of money for permission to go through their land.
Among those complaining was York County landowner Susan Dunaven. “I do want to express to you a little bit what it feels like to be a landowner,” Dunaven said. “To have the Fedex truck come up your driveway and to be handed letters threatening eminent domain condemnation when you don’t know what your rights are.”
“And the letters do insist that within 30 days they will start the eminent domain proceedings,” she said. “It’s just very difficult to go month after month and week after week not knowing every time you see the Fedex truck come, is it going to serve papers to you.”
Dunaven supported a proposal by Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery making it illegal for companies to use eminent domain before they have all necessary permits. An amendment he offered would make it illegal for a company to claim it has such a right before having been given permission to build.
Among those opposing the proposal was Lee Hamann, a lawyer from Omaha representing TransCanada. Hamann said the company feels the proposal is vague and represents special legislation directed at one company. He also said TransCanada has not initiated eminent domain proceedings in Nebraska in connection with the Keystone XL project.
“There’s been a lot of attention to this project,” Hamann said. “We’ve tried very hard to be responsive to both political leaders, landowners and our own company’s obligations…and ride that balance….we’ve been trying to work through these issues with people, we try to do the same with landowners.”
TransCanada official Robert Jones claimed the company has gotten 91 percent of Nebraska landowners on its proposed route to enter into voluntary agreements.
The other proposal heard Tuesday was one by Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler that would give the governor ultimate approval authority over pipeline routes. Under Langemeier’s bill, that decision would come after the governor got a recommendation from a group including representatives of the Departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, the Game and Parks commission, the Public Service Commission and the lieutenant governor.
The hearings in Nebraska come amid shifting signs about the pipeline at the federal level. National publications relying on anonymous sources have suggested President Barack Obama could delay a decision about giving the pipeline a permit until after the 2012 election, or that the U.S. State Department itself could change the route. And Monday, the State Department’s inspector general announced he will investigate whether the department has complied with the law in its review of the pipeline proposal.