Texas landowners are taking a rare stand against Big Oil

Oil has long lived in harmony with farmland and cattle across the Texas landscape, a symbiosis nurtured by generations and built on an unspoken honor code that allowed agriculture to thrive while oil was extracted.

Proud Texans have long welcomed the industry because of the cash it brings to sustain agriculture, but also see its presence as part of their patriotic duty to help wean the United States off “foreign” oil. So the answer to companies that wanted to build pipelines has usually been simple: Yes.

Enter TransCanada.

As the company pursues construction of a 1,179-mile-long cross-country pipeline meant to bring Canadian tar sands oil to South Texas refineries, it’s finding opposition in the unlikeliest of places: oil-friendly Texas, a state that has more pipelines snaking through the ground than any other.

In the minds of some landowners approached by TransCanada for land, the company has broken the code.

Nearly half the steel TransCanada is using is not American-made and the company won’t promise to use local workers exclusively; it can’t guarantee the oil will remain in the United States. It has snatched land. Possibly most egregious: The company has behaved like an arrogant foreigner, unworthy of operating in Texas…

Oil and agriculture have lived in peace in part because a one-time payment from a pipeline company or monthly royalties from a production rig can help finance a ranch or farm that struggle today to turn a profit from agriculture. The oil giants also respected landowners’ fierce Texas independence, even sometimes drilling in a different yard or rerouting a pipeline to ensure easy access to the minerals below.

TransCanada is different. For one, it has more often sought and received court permission to condemn land when property owners didn’t agree to an easement.

Most pipeline projects in Texas have been completed with an average of 4 percent to 10 percent of condemned land. TransCanada, however, has condemned more than 100 of the 800 or so tracts – or about 12.5 percent – of the land it needed to complete a 485-mile portion of the pipeline that runs through Texas.

Many of the lawsuits in Texas are about TransCanada’s “common carrier” status. This allows companies building projects benefiting the public to condemn private property. The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled if a landowner challenges a condemnation, the company must prove its project is for the public good.

This part of a possible solution is problematical in its own right. Unless you think Texas courts are any less driven by ideology than, say, Congress. Unless you think Texas courts are any less likely to take sides with pipeline companies “for the public good”.

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