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Texas judge deals setback to opponents of Keystone XL pipeline

August 23, 2012|By Kim Murphy
  • A crowd protests outside the county courthouse in Paris, Texas, where ranch manager Julia Trigg Crawford fought a pipeline easement sought by TransCanada
A crowd protests outside the county courthouse in Paris, Texas, where ranch… (Sam Craft / Paris News )

A Texas rebellion over private property rights and a major new oil pipeline has been dealt a setback by a judge in Lamar County, who ruled that the Canadian pipeline company TransCanada has the right to exercise the power of eminent domain to run the Keystone XL pipeline across an opposing landowner’s property.

The ruling in Paris, Texas, from Lamar County Court-at-Law Judge Bill Harris — sent in a few terse words from his iPhone — was a blow to the unlikely coalition of environmentalists, ranchers and conservative tea party activists who have mounted a lively grass-roots challenge against the pipeline in a state traditionally friendly to oil and gas projects.

The judge’s brief ruling late Wednesday effectively recognizes what is known as common carrier status for the Keystone XL project and allows TransCanada to proceed with acquiring an easement across ranch manager Julia Trigg Crawford’s property.

Harris apparently rejected landowners’ arguments that under the definition of “common carrier,” TransCanada should have to prove in detail that the pipeline would be generally available to all oil shippers, not just a few private companies.

Opponents argue the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to eventually carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, is primarily designed to benefit the Canadian company and presents a potential environmental hazard for landowners along the route.

“This case has uncovered the craziness and the inequities that are in our current, rubber-stamp eminent domain process,” Crawford said in an interview Thursday. “What this means is that the lowest-level court has chosen to rule in TransCanada’s favor with a summary judgment, and I find it interesting that it was a 15-word ruling sent from his iPhone. We’ve been in court with thousands of pages of documents and testimony and witnesses and hearings, and it comes down to 15 words on an email form his phone.”

Crawford said she and her family had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.

TransCanada, which already has begun construction in Lamar County on the southern portion of the pipeline, has said it was following the provisions of Texas law, under which pipeline companies apply for common carrier status through the state.

“This ruling reaffirms that TransCanada has, and continues, to follow all state and federal laws and regulations as we move forward with the construction of the Gulf Coast project,” company spokesman Shawn Howard said in a statement.

Howard said the $2.3-billion southern pipeline project will provide a substantial benefit to Americans by way of construction jobs and by transporting lower-priced oil from West Texas and Oklahoma to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. “Refiners would rather process American and Canadian oil than higher priced crude from countries such as Venezuela and regions in the Middle East,” Howard said.

Though Texas is crisscrossed by pipelines from end to end, the Keystone XL project has been particularly controversial because of concerns that the thick diluted bitumen extracted from the Canadian tar sands is more corrosive than traditional crude oil and could pollute ranch lands and aquifers with dangerous heavy metals in the event of a spill.

Though the environmental argument doesn’t typically gain much currency in Texas, the fact that TransCanada has taken landowners to court in eminent domain proceedings to gain access to rights-of-way for the pipeline has sparked opposition from conservatives, including tea party activists.

“Judge Harris' disappointing decision today further highlights the vulnerable and precarious position that Texas landowners are in," Debra Medina, a former Republican candidate for governor favored by the tea party, said in a statement. "These cases are often argued in county courts poorly equipped to assess such weighty legal questions. These courts lack the resources to properly consider the complex and voluminous evidence assembled by multibillion-dollar corporations.”

Crawford has been offered $10,395 for the easement across the family ranch her grandfather bought in 1948 and said many of her neighbors already have accepted payments and permitted construction to begin.

“I’m sure the judge is in a very pressure-filled situation. And I bet he’s glad to have it out of his court. In one of his hearings, his opening statement was, ‘I never want to hear the word pipeline again,’” Crawford said.

“At this point, we can take what happened and walk away, knowing we did a god job, or appeal it to a higher court, a panel of three judges who deal with these kinds of cases all the time," Crawford continued. "But either way we go on that, personally I’m going to continue championing the case for property rights.”

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