Property Rights Outcry Stops Billion-Dollar Pipeline Project in Georgia

Construction is suspended after landowners protest seizure of property, a judge weighs in, and the state legislature passes legislation to block it.

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Seen here is the site of a 370,000 gallon gasoline pipeline spill in Belton, South Carolina, where the Palmetto pipeline would have started before traveling nearly 400 miles, mostly within Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida. Outcry from legislators and lawmakers in Georgia over eminent domain has led to the project's suspension. Credit: Mark Albertin of Morris Communications LLC

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Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, announced this week that it has suspended construction of a $1 billion pipeline project that would pump gasoline and diesel fuel across the Southeastern United States. The decision is being hailed as a victory by an unlikely coalition of Republican legislators, private property owners and environmental organizations.

The announcement came the same day Georgia state lawmakers sent a bill to the state’s governor that would place a moratorium on the 360-mile pipeline’s construction until 2017, after they voted overwhelmingly in support of the legislation.

“Kinder Morgan has suspended further work on the Palmetto Pipeline project, following the unfavorable action by the Georgia legislature regarding eminent domain authority and permitting restrictions for petroleum pipelines,” the company said on its website.

“My constituents were up in arms,” said Georgia state representative Bill Hitchens, a Republican. “It’s a conduit to pump petroleum from South Carolina into Florida. It doesn’t do anything for the state of Georgia.”

Hitchens, who sponsored the Georgia House of Representatives’ version of the bill, said threats to landowner rights were a primary concern. “Personal property rights are something that most people believe are as sacrosanct as all of the amendments to the Constitution,” he said.

In Hitchens’ district in eastern Georgia near Savannah, land ownership goes back generations. Many of Hitchens’ constituents are from families who have lived in the area since the 1700s, when they arrived as religious refugees from what is now Austria, under the protection of the king of England.

“They believe God gave them that property and Kinder Morgan is going to come through and take it away from them through eminent domain so that they can make profit off of it,” Hitchens said. “They just didn’t believe it was right that they would have to give up their property to the largest pipeline company in the country that is making billions of dollars so they could make billions of dollars more.”

Hitchens said he was also concerned about a potential environmental disaster if the pipeline ever leaked.

In 2014, Houston-based Kinder Morgan was responsible for a 370,000-gallon spill of gasoline from a pipeline in Belton, S.C.  The Palmetto pipeline would have started in Belton before traveling nearly 400 miles, mostly within Georgia, to Jacksonville, Fla.

“You can imagine what kind of scenarios my constituents envisioned,” Hitchens said. “They are going to cross every major river in Georgia that empties out into the Atlantic Ocean, all the wetlands all the tributaries, I just can’t imagine what 370,000 gallons of petroleum product does to the environment.”

In response to questions by InsideClimate News, Kinder Morgan spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz said, “The statement on our website is all that we are providing at this time.”

Pipeline opponents said the success in Georgia and a similar successful effort to block another Kinder Morgan pipeline in Kentucky are part of a trend spurred by conservatives.

“In those conservative states, they are clearly following a more Republican platform when it comes to property rights and eminent domain,” said Jane Kleeb, founder of the activist group Bold Nebraska. But “landowners across the country, whether they are in purple, red or blue states, are saying we have rights too,” added Kleeb, whose organization fought the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast. It was rejected by the Obama administration on climate change grounds.

Kinder Morgan’s announcement comes one month after a Georgia Superior Court judge upheld a decision denying a certificate that would allow Kinder Morgan to use eminent domain. Eminent domain would have allowed the company to force landowners, if necessary, to sell portions of their land required for their pipeline. The tactic has long been used by government entities to build roads and other projects that benefit the public but is controversial, especially when private entities attempt to use it for their own gain.

Landowners in the pipeline’s path have come out in strong opposition to the project.

“We have a tract of land that has been in our family since the mid-1700s,” said Alan Zipperer, one of the landowners who successfully sued Kinder Morgan over its attempted use of eminent domain—and whose family still holds an original land grant document from the king of England. “We’ve managed to keep the majority of it in our family for a couple hundred years. It’s on my watch now and I want to try to keep it in the family.”

Zipperer and other members of his family own a 350-acre tract of woodlands. Kinder Morgan sought to run a pipeline through a half-mile length of the property and would have cleared a 125-foot-wide swath of woods as they went, an area of approximately eight acres.

“My wealth is in my land,” Zipperer said. “Suppose that same private company could stick their hand into your checking account every couple of years and draw $10,000, $20,000 out and you had to give it to them. What would be the difference?”

Since 1970, Zipperer said, he and his family have lost 40 acres of their land through eminent domain for natural gas pipelines and power lines. The family received as little as $700 an acre for the land at the time, but property values have risen significantly in recent decades and now sell for approximately $20,000 an acre, Zipperer said.

“I don’t intend to give any more eminent domain unless it is the state or county needing a road or something that is going to help all the citizens,” Zipperer said. “In that case I’m not opposed to eminent domain. I’m opposed to eminent domain when a private company is taking private people’s land and making millions and billions of dollars off of our land.”

Environmental groups hailed the company’s decision.

“We applaud Kinder Morgan’s decision to suspend work on a pipeline that is not needed and will not provide any benefit to Georgia consumers,” said a written statement from Steve Caley, legal director for GreenLaw, an environmental advocacy group that is fighting the project on behalf of five environmental groups: the Center for a Sustainable Coast, and the Savannah, Ogeechee, Altamaha and Satilla Riverkeepers.

“We’ve succeeded in stopping a bad project and need to continue to make sure that we close the discovered loopholes in both states’ laws to protect our citizens and their rights,” Tonya Bonitatibus, an advocate for the Savannah Riverkeeper organization and spokesperson for the Push Back the Pipeline coalition, said in a statement.

Kinder Morgan did not rule out resuming its Palmetto pipeline project after the anticipated one-year moratorium in Georgia is up, according to its statement. Georgia governor Nathan Deal still needs to sign the moratorium bill into law, something many anticipate he will do in May. A similar bill is making its way through the South Carolina legislature.

“They [Kinder Morgan] said they are suspending, not terminating,” Hitchens cautioned. “I don’t know what to make of it yet.”

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