Eminent domain should not apply with pipeline

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Oklahoma-based Williams Co. and Texas-based Boardwalk Pipeline Partners want to build a pipeline to pump natural gas liquids across the commonwealth. The partnership expects it will not be able to negotiate sales with 2 percent of landowners along the route.

Although the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline’s exact path is unknown, it will enter Kentucky in Bracken County and run through many central Kentucky counties to link up with an existing pipeline in Breckinridge County.

The pipeline builders have said they will steer clear of property owned by Roman Catholic communities, the Sisters of Loretto’s tract in Marion County and the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County. Those living in those communities publicly oppose the pipeline.

But for other landowners opposing the pipeline, staying out of the project is a hazy prospect.

Company representatives say they can use eminent domain and petition the court to secure land for the project. They’ve said it’s a last resort, but that doesn’t soften the threat for landowners.

In Franklin County, a lawsuit has been filed to determine if the company can use eminent domain.

The heart of the argument is whether the Bluegrass Pipeline is for public use.

Company representatives believe eminent domain is available because the company will be a “common carrier.”

Kentucky’s eminent domain law deems public utilities and common carriers as public use. Proponents argue Williams and Boardwalk will qualify as a common carrier because other companies will be able to purchase use of the pipeline.

Several officials think Kentucky law doesn’t allow the company to leverage eminent domain.

Opponents say the natural gas liquids to flow through the Bluegrass Pipeline are not being sold to utilities for public consumption in Kentucky and its builders don’t have the authority to condemn land.

The Bluegrass Pipeline will improve the method by which the liquids separated from natural gas in the Northeast are shipped to the Gulf Coast. From there, the liquids can be sold, shipped again and used in a number of products, including plastics. And at the same time, its owners will charge other businesses tariffs to use the line.

It’s a business venture, not a public service. In no way can it be viewed as a public utility in service to Kentuckians.

Additionally, proponents also argue the economic benefits of the pipeline. The company will spend $30 to $50 million buying easements and provide temporary construction jobs.

Those advantages have no place in the eminent domain argument, though. In fact, state law prohibits using eminent domain to transfer land to a private owner for indirect economic benefits, including increased tax revenue and job creation.

Lawmakers in the impacted counties plan to file bills clarifying eminent domain law. The General Assembly should prevent such a drastic measure from being used by a private enterprise and reserve it for a true public utility.

The common carrier piece of the law was not meant to apply in this situation. And not taking action puts Kentucky at risk of lowering the eminent domain threshold.

It also would be abandoning the Kentucky landowners in the proposed pipeline’s path.

If their homes are their castles, their lands are their courtyards. The choice to allow a private business to use that courtyard belongs to its owner, not a business, not the government. Any reason or conviction, from family heritage to stewardship to even plain surliness, might keep them from selling.

But in the meantime, buyers dangling eminent domain before sellers isn’t fair. It’s an unjust weight on landowners’ emotions and certainly a disadvantage in negotiations.

Kentucky lawmakers must take eminent domain off the table.

This editorial was originally published in The Lebanon Enterprise.