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Sunday, June 27, 2010
Texas Pipeline eminent domain law cited in PA as how not to do it!
By Heather Long - The Patriot-News - June
This is about natural gas pipelines. Pipelines that could be going through your backyard even if you object.
If you’re like me, you are the type who flips the electric switch and expects the lights to come on immediately. I don’t give much thought to all the wires, transmission lines, power stations and generating plants, etc., along the way.
Why does it matter?
But as Pennsylvania is set to become the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” in the Marcellus Shale region, it turns out we have to start caring not just about what happens at the wells, but about the entire chain of natural gas production and transportation.
That includes caring about those pipelines.
In Texas, pipeline companies can invoke what is known as eminent domain at various times to build their transport network. If the pipeline company says it needs to run a pipe over someone’s land, officials go to a judge who helps determine what the “market rate” is to use your land and then it’s a done deal, whether the homeowner thinks it’s a good idea or not.
Needless to say, the use of eminent domain hasn’t gone all that smoothly in Texas, especially in the wealthy neighborhoods of Fort Worth where Barnett Shale is.
There’s been such a stink that the Texas Legislature tightened rules on where pipelines can go and how they get laid in metropolitan areas.
This isn’t just a Lone Star State phenomenon. It could happen right here in Pennsylvania.
In fact, it already has.
Six pipeline companies already are registered in Pennsylvania as public utilities, which gives them the ability to invoke eminent domain. These six have been around for a while and mainly carry motor and fuel oil, but Marcellus Shale is opening up a whole new business opportunity.
One Marcellus pipeline company, Laser Marcellus Gathering Co. from Houston, applied in January to the state’s Public Utility Commission for classification as a public utility, too.
Companies, of course, don’t always resort to eminent domain. It’s a headache to get judges and lawyers involved, not to mention sometimes bad PR.
But if the PUC grants Laser Marcellus public utility status, the option will be there, potentially opening up the floodgates for eminent domain in our state.
At a minimum, the PUC should require more stringent reporting and oversight of any company that gets eminent domain rights. Even better would be for the PUC to rethink whether companies such as Laser Marcellus that are building pipelines mainly to transport gas to other states should even get public utility status, which was designed with in-state providers in mind.
But eminent domain is just the tip of the iceberg.
At present, no one in Pennsylvania oversees gas pipelines at all.
There are federal laws on the books that set basic standards, but no agency is on the ground inspecting.
In most states, the equivalent of the PUC oversees pipeline construction and operation. In fact, that’s how it’s done in all 41 natural gas-drilling states with the exception of Alaska and Pennsylvania.
Are we that much smarter than everyone else?
No. We’re just waiting on our Legislature to act. All it needs to do is grant the PUC the right to enforce the federal law here in Pennsylvania.
The good news is that giving PUC the jurisdiction is supported by environmental groups and most of the gas industry, two sides that don’t see eye to eye on much.
So I hope legislators took note when various representatives from both sides testified before the PUC this week, almost all in support of the PUC getting authority to regulate.
The PUC deserves a huge amount of credit for taking up these issues now. It is getting ahead of the curve, something we don’t often see in state government.
Because most natural gas pipelines are relatively low pressure, but what is expected to come from Marcellus Shale is going to be high pressure.
In the words of PUC chairman James Cawley, “The potential for disaster is greater.”
The final issue is the dirty detail: Do we regulate pipelines in rural areas? The federal legislation says no. Don’t bother with areas that are 10 or fewer dwellings per mile.
But we must learn from other big drilling states. Colorado and Oklahoma have enacted subsequent laws including rural areas in basic pipeline monitoring and marking.
The Legislature needs to get up to speed on pipelines, and it needs to do so soon.
Let’s give the PUC the authority over all monitoring, including rural areas. It’s time to flip the switch on basic oversight.
Heather Long is deputy editorial page editor. 255-8104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have. - Thomas Jefferson