Within the span of a few short years, the United States has become the world’s largest producer of natural gas and the fastest growing producer of oil. While many welcome this development with its prospect of affordable, reliable energy for all Americans, we must ensure that the property rights of our fellow citizens are not sacrificed in the process.
Unfortunately, just such a possibility of large-scale landowner abuse exists here in Virginia. Richmond-based Dominion Resources has teamed up with three major U.S. energy companies – Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, and AGL Resources – to build a $5 billion, 590-mile gas pipeline. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would originate in gas-rich Harrison County, West Virginia, run southeast to Greensville County, Virginia, and then south into eastern North Carolina. A lateral extension is planned from the Virginia-North Carolina border east to the coast.
What deeply troubles many landowners in the pipeline’s path is Dominion’s threat to ram the project down their throats using the power of eminent domain. The energy giant’s project will affect over 2,750 landowners along a 400-foot-wide study corridor, where the 42-inch pipe – designed to carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day – will be installed. Laying the pipeline, which will not provide service to most of the counties along the route, requires clear-cutting and excavating a swath 125 feet wide across someone’s land. The permanently cleared easement, on which no trees can be planted and no structures built, will be 75 feet wide. Landowners must continue paying property taxes on this easement, even as they lose rights to its use and incur devaluation on their remaining property.
If Dominion cannot obtain the land with the owners’ consent, the company plans to take it through eminent domain under federal law. By choosing to use federal law instead of state law, Dominion will sidestep the very protections provided to landowners by the 2012 amendment to Virginia’s constitution, which was approved by 75 percent of voters in a referendum. Currently, Dominion is even suing almost 200 landowners, mostly farmers, in central Virginia in order to survey their property against their will.
Dominion may say that the pipeline cannot be built without using eminent domain and that the process is little different than that used in the construction of roads. Unlike roads, however, pipelines do not need to be straight or flat or connect specific localities along the way. The proposed ACP already has a number of twists and turns to help navigate specific geographic features and historical or environmental sites. Thus, Dominion has a lot of flexibility to adapt the route to the individual needs of landowners, without resorting to eminent domain to get its way.
There is, in fact, a way to build the pipeline and protect the rights of landowners through a combination of collocation with existing easements and free-market negotiations with willing landowners. Dominion could route a majority of the pipeline through pre-existing rights-of-way and easements to minimize the project’s impact on farmers and other landowners. For example:
- Almost the entire pipeline could be laid within the easement of Dominion’s own high-voltage transmission lines, which run from Harrison County, West Virginia all the way to the ACP’s planned destinations in Virginia and North Carolina. This is a common practice, which Dominion itself has employed in other states.
- The pipeline could also follow the I-64 right-of-way through the mountains where it would connect with and follow the easements of other mass-transmission pipelines that lead all the way to Chesapeake, Virginia.
- The pipeline could be laid within the easement of the Columbia Gas transmission line, which runs from northern West Virginia to Chesapeake.
In addition to the many collocation opportunities that the executives of Dominion have before them, they could also choose to engage in fair free-market negotiations with property owners that remain in the path of the pipeline. In any case where the pipeline must cross private land, Dominion could enter into agreements with willing landowners, enticing them to participate through negotiated royalties. While these options may add to the initial cost of the pipeline, there is much precedent for such an approach, and that cost would be more than offset by avoiding the lawsuits eminent domain will inevitably produce.
Achieving energy independence is a laudable goal – one which should go hand-in-hand with protecting the rights of landowners. Using eminent domain to bludgeon farmers into submission is not the tactic of a responsible corporate citizen, but that of a bully.