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Judge's ruling on pipeline: Playing field leveled

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Kentucky Standard editorial board

 The decision out of Franklin Circuit Court that the Bluegrass Pipeline does not have the power of eminent domain shows that, at least in one branch of government, private citizens’ rights are still important.

In his summary judgment against Bluegrass Pipeline, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip J. Shepherd ruled March 25 that the pipeline was not “in public service,” and therefore not eligible to have the government seize private property against the will of landowners.

The pipeline has vowed to appeal the ruling. But in the meantime, property owners can breathe a little easier.

Legislators and the governor had the opportunity to stand beside property owners, but it looks like they have decided to pass.

Nelson County’s state lawmakers, most notably state Rep. David Floyd, deserve recognition for pushing the issue as far as it got in Frankfort. Floyd has been an outspoken proponent of House Bill 31, which would have made clear that the pipeline did not qualify.

But on Monday — at the end of a session most remarkable for its lack of accomplishments — state Senate President Robert Stivers said the Senate had no plans to consider the bill because of the ongoing court case.

Floyd probably offered better insight into the bill’s lack of attention — it just didn’t affect enough lawmakers’ districts.

It also probably didn’t help the bill’s chances that the parent company of the pipeline spread about $43,000 among Kentucky’s state and federal politicians on both sides of the aisle, according to the Federal Election Commission’s website, including $500 to Stivers’ campaign. Neither did the $62,500 Boardwalk Pipeline Partners spent on lobbyists in Frankfort over the last year.

The company echoed in court what it has been selling to politicians and the general public — that the project is tied to the nation’s energy independence. Perhaps that resonates with politicians looking to line their campaign coffers and a general public that has a hard time distinguishing between natural gas, which many of us use to heat our homes, and natural gas liquids, which are used mostly for manufacturing.

In its bid for advancing its energy independence line of reasoning, the company submitted a statement from a chemical company in Calvert City that “May possibly, at some undefined time in the future, seek to interconnect with the pipeline.”

The judge obviously wasn’t buying that argument.

Spokesmen for Bluegrass Pipeline and its parent companies have said repeatedly that they prefer to negotiate with landowners, and would only use eminent domain as a last resort when there is a dispute among deed holders.

Yet, there have been many landowners who have claimed that land agents working on the project’s behalf have warned that if the landowner doesn’t accept their terms, the company will just take it.

Bluegrass officials say if anyone working for the company uses that as a negotiation tactic, that person will be fired.

But it doesn’t always have to be said to have an effect if a private citizen faces a deep-pocketed company in a legal battle. While the courts might serve as the last resort for citizens, money and resources can still tip the scales.

What Shepherd’s ruling does is level the playing field.

The company says it wants to sit at landowners’ kitchen tables and negotiate a fair price.

Now it has no option. If it wants access to people’s land, it can offer the price the landowner asks, or it can move on.