Oregon senators to introduce bills against use of eminent domain

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley announced this week they plan to introduce bills that would make it harder for gas pipeline companies to use eminent domain against landowners who don’t want their property used for pipeline routes.

The Oregon senators, both Democrats, said they plan to introduce their bills in September when the Senate returns to business. Each will co-sponsor the other’s bill.

Both senators said their bills come in response to the natural gas industry’s increased use of eminent domain for pipeline development and the failure of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to protect landowners’ rights.

They said the proposal of Canadian company Pembina to build a 229-mile pipeline through Southern Oregon provides a clear example of the alarming trend.

The pipeline would pass through Klamath, Jackson, Douglas and Coos counties to a proposed natural gas export facility north of Coos Bay.

“It’s become painfully apparent in Southern Oregon and far too many other places that private pipeline companies have repeatedly abused property owners by claiming eminent domain in the public interest, safe in the knowledge that FERC will provide them cover,” Wyden said. “My bill and Senator Merkley’s bill would restore a much-needed balance that defends landowners’ rights with due process that’s both fair and common-sense.”

Wyden’s Reaffirming Property Rights Through Natural Gas Act Modernization Act includes provisions to end the legal presumption that gas exports are by definition in the public interest, standardize gas developers’ communications to landowners while also setting time limits on FERC actions, set stricter standards on eminent domain claims and provide a more robust appeals process for landowners.

Merkley’s bill would go even further.

His proposed Ending Natural Gas Companies’ Seizure of Land for Export Profits Act would prohibit companies building export pipelines from using eminent domain claims against private lands.

“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,” said Merkley. “If big pipeline corporations want to use land in Southern Oregon or across America, they should negotiate with the landowners for that right.”

Deb Evans and Ron Schaaf, Jackson County residents who own timberland in Douglas County along the pipeline route, said both bills are groundbreaking and would modernize federal law in regard to natural gas projects.

“Protection of constitutionally guaranteed property rights is a key tenet of the bills and something every U.S. citizen should support,” they said in a joint statement.

Rogue Climate, a local group fighting climate change, applauded the senators’ announcement that they would introduce bills addressing eminent domain. The group said the project threatens to strip land from property owners, impact tribal nations and harm commercial fishing, while the export facility would become the biggest producer of climate-changing pollution in the state.

Pembina has said exports of natural gas from Canada and states in the interior American West would help in the fight against global warming by offsetting the use of coal in Asia, the primary export market.

The $10 billion construction project would pump money into the Southern Oregon and state economies, providing tax revenue and jobs, according to an economic analysis of the project.

Pembina previously offered payments of at least $30,000 to each landowner along the route and said it had secured voluntary easements for the use of property along at least 77% of the route.

The three-foot-diameter pipeline would be buried underground. The pipeline corridor would have to be kept clear of trees and buildings.

FERC has already approved the project, but on the condition that Pembina win necessary permits. The project has been unable to secure key Oregon permits because of concerns over environmental damage.

Although the project doesn’t have state approval, FERC said Pembina could start eminent domain proceedings against landowners who don’t want their property used. But FERC said land clearing and construction can’t begin unless the project secures all needed permits.

Opponents have filed lawsuits to block the project.