As one Northeast Texas landowner awaits her appeal, a court in Beaumont rules in favor of TransCanada Corporation.
Haslett: It’s not often that a court case in Beaumont has possible implications in Lamar County – 300 miles away, at the other end of East Texas. But a decision yesterday from a state appeals court in Beaumont was noticed far beyond the Golden Triangle.
The ruling was good news for TransCanada Corporation, the company building the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas. TransCanada has been fighting legal battles against landowners challenging the company’s use of eminent domain to seize property for the pipeline.
The southern leg of the larger Keystone XL project would take tar-sands crude oil extracted in western Canada from central Oklahoma to refineries on the Texas Gulf coast. On Thursday, a three-judge appellate panel unanimously ruled in favor of TransCanada and against rice farmer David Holland, who filed an appeal to the Beaumont court after losing a lower-court battle.
Meanwhile, in Northeast Texas, TransCanada has broken ground on the farm of Julia Trigg Crawford. Crawford’s farm, where she grows mainly wheat, was the last property in Texas along the pipeline’s route where work had not begun. It’s called the Red’Arc farm, as it’s bounded on the north by Red River, on the west by Bois d’Arc Creek. Crews started in last week.
Crawford: All eyes are on this property. Every worker here knows the situation. Everybody that, you know, I talk with, knows that, "Oh that's that lady, you know, that's on TV and radio and..."
I'm really just a landowner standing up for something that I believe in, but it's turned into - our family and this situation's kind of become a representative of landowner rights. And not just in Texas. I've testified in Congress in Washington, D.C., on some federal laws.
Haslett: In general, Texas is big on private property rights. A 2005 United States Supreme Court ruling, Kelo versus the City of New London, Connecticut, is infamous among those in Texas who want to limit the applications of eminent domain. The high court’s ruling sparked a groundswell of pro-landowner sentiment, activity and legislation in Texas.
But Texas does allow the use of eminent domain for what are known as common carriers – infrastructure that would allow for the transport of people or commodities for the public’s use or benefit. That’s how things like highways and electrical transmission lines can get built. If a private company’s project qualifies as a common carrier, it’s good to go.
The obvious question following from that – who decides what projects fit the definition of common carrier? A Texas Supreme Court decision made in 2011 and reinforced last year made it clear that the state gets to decide, and that a company can’t just tell the state it’s a common carrier and have that be enough. The case, generally known as the Denbury case, was welcomed by landowners like Crawford.
Crawford: And we thought the one shining light on this was the Denbury-Green ruling by the Texas Supreme Court about two years ago that said property rights are way too precious to allow someone to check a box in the Railroad Commission and pick up the club of eminent domain.
So, when challenged by a landowner, the burden of proof falls on the pipeline to prove they are what they say they are. So in Lamar County court at law, we said that. And TransCanada hid behind the skirts of the Railroad Commission saying, "Well, they said we are. So we don't have to provide anything else."
We also asked for a tariff schedule - "What are you going to charge everybody?" And they said, "Well, we won't have that document of proof until after we take your land, build a pipeline and product is about to flow."
Haslett: Crawford’s referring to her attempt to stop TransCanada by filing a case in Lamar County Court. The public relations firm hired by TransCanada to handle media requests about the pipeline did not respond to telephone messages requesting an interview for this story. Last August, Lamar County Judge Bill Harris ruled in favor of TransCanada. Lamar County staff said Harris will not comment on the ruling while it’s under appeal.
And even though Crawford has filed an appeal, TransCanada has the green light to go ahead. Which brings us back to yesterday’s ruling in Beaumont. The appellate court there said that the Keystone XL pipeline does indeed qualify as a common carrier. Crawford’s appeal will be heard by an appeals court in Texarkana. Crawford says she’s been given no timeline for the case, but that she expects oral arguments to begin soon. But as for the pipeline – that’s already begun. For KETR news, I’m Mark Haslett.