Oregon senators introduce bills to protect landowners amid pipeline projects

When Congress resumes in September, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) will introduce two bills aimed at protecting property owners and states from land seizures by private corporations.

Landowners facing eminent domain claims by Jordan Cove LNG for the Pacific Connector pipeline inspired the legislation.

Pembina, a Canadian energy corporation, has the ability to forcibly take easements on private land in order to build the 229-mile natural gas pipeline from a compression station in Malin to an export terminal in Coos Bay.

While the company has to clear multiple state regulatory hurdles before they can begin construction, approval of the project in March by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted Jordan Cove a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity. That certificate allows them to claim eminent domain when seizing private land along the pipeline route.

Eminent domain is a legal power that allows public entities (whether federal, state or municipal) to acquire private property for public use. The federal government used it throughout history to establish railroads, public buildings and parks.

However, in recent years private corporations have used eminent domain to condemn land for petroleum and gas pipeline projects when landowners have been unwilling to sign easements on their property. The Natural Gas Act of 1938 allows this loophole by assuming the projects are in the public interest.

Wyden’s bill would do away with that legal premise and tighten requirements on when corporations can claim eminent domain. Merkley’s bill would exempt pipelines that export gas out of the U.S. (like Jordan Cove) from the ability to use eminent domain to seize land. It would also clarify language in the act that says the federal government may not grant a private corporation the ability to seize state lands for a project. The senators plan to co-sponsor each others’ bills, per a news release.

“For decades, the deck has been stacked in favor of private pipeline companies who can steamroll people’s private property rights to build export pipelines that won’t benefit Americans,” Merkley said. “If big pipeline corporations want to use land in Southern Oregon or across America, they should negotiate with the landowners for that right.”

While Pembina has reached agreements with some landowners, about a third of those along the pipeline route have not signed easements.

Deb Evans, who owns property near Keno targeted for the pipeline route, said the bills are a much-needed clarification for those across the country dealing with eminent domain seizures by fossil fuel companies.

Evans said Wyden’s bill, which will also institute a standard for appraising the sale of easements that would better involve landowners, will result in better compensation for those who do decide to enter into agreements with companies.

“To protect basic Constitutional rights for property owners, clarification needs to happen on that Natural Gas Act,” Evans said.

Landowners affected by the Pacific Connector route have dealt with land agents showing up on their property since the mid-2000s when energy infrastructure Veresen (which has since been acquired by Pembina) had planned to build a natural gas import terminal and pipeline. Some said the company used eminent domain as leverage for making easement deals even before they officially received the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity in March.

Bill Gow, a rancher and affected landowner in Douglas County, said while he thinks the senators’ bills could be political posturing given their relative silence on Jordan Cove until 2017, the legislation is better late than never.

“They’re finally getting the idea of just how dirty what was happening to us was,” Gow said.

The two bills are unlikely to pass the current Senate and could take years to pass, even if this fall’s election shakes up Congress and puts Democrats like Wyden and Merkley in the majority.

The FERC lawsuit, which is in its preliminary stages, is what landowners affected by Jordan Cove are most focused on right now.

“People who believe that the Constitution counts for something should absolutely be paying attention to what’s going on right here, because this is a violation of Constitutional rights,” Evans said.