Eminent Domain and the Keystone Pipeline Project

The New York Times has an article describing how the TransCanada corporation is using eminent domain to forcibly acquire property to build the Keystone oil pipeline:

When the TransCanada men first came, Julia Trigg Crawford said, they were polite. They offered money. Seven thousand dollars to let the Keystone XL pipeline cross her family’s 600-acre farm on its way from the Alberta tar sands to the refineries on the Gulf Coast….

Ms. Crawford, 52, who serves as the farm’s manager, called the rest of the family. They agreed to sign. “We thought that at least if we signed we’d have some say in what happened,” she said.

They called the TransCanada representative. “He told us that if we could come up with a contract that worked for both parties, they wouldn’t condemn the land,” Ms. Crawford said…..

“I fully expected them to counter,” she said. “There were about five or six things we wanted, and we would have been happy to take one or two.”

Then, she said, TransCanada “went full radio silence.” The Crawfords never heard back from them — until October, when they got a letter saying their land had been condemned and a lease awarded to TransCanada.

But as the Crawfords discovered, when voluntary compensation agreements are not reached, Texas law allows certain private pipeline companies to use the right of eminent domain to force landowners to let pipelines through. This was true even for TransCanada, which has yet to get State Department permission to bring the Keystone XL across the Alberta border.

The article notes TransCanada’s claim that it has acquired the overwhelming majority of the property they needed for the pipeline through voluntary land sales. This may be true, but it is misleading. Like the Crawfords, these owners agreed to sell their land under the threat of eminent domain if they refused. Some might well have refused to sell for the price offered by the firm if eminent domain were off the table. The voluntariness of land sales undertaken in the shadow of threats of condemnation is dubious at best.

Back in 2006, co-blogger Jonathan Adler and I published an article explaining the environmental dangers of allowing the use of eminent domain for private economic development projects, as the Supreme Court ruled in the Kelo case. At the time, some environmentalists pooh-pooed the article, and one group even declared our article the environmental “outrage of the month” (it must have been a slow month for actual pollution). Ironically, as Jonathan explained here, several environmental groups are now trying to use post-Kelo reform laws restricting economic development takings to block the Keystone takings.

Such efforts are unlikely to succeed in Texas. As I described in this article, Texas is one of many states that have passed post-Kelo reform laws that pretend to constrain economic development takings without actually doing so. They might have a better chance in one of the other states through which the pipeline must pass.

Even if Kelo had been decided the other way, some pipeline takings might still be constitutional. The Constitution permits takings for “public use,” and even under the traditional definition of public use advocated by Kelo’s critics, condemnations for public utilities or common carriers that the general population has a legal right of access to are often permissible. However, pipeline takings would be subject to tougher constitutional constraints than under Kelo, and the government would at least have to prove that the pipelines in question really are public utilities or common carriers open to the general public.

Regardless, as Jonathan points out, the controversy over Keystone has led “some environmentalists… to recognize that allowing the government to seize private property for the purpose of encouraging private economic development can facilitate environmentally undesirable projects.”

UPDATE: In a response to this post, Mark Kleiman claims that Jonathan Adler and I “don’t seem interested in the fact that none of their friends on the side of inalienable property rights seems to have any problem with the use of eminent domain to build Keystone (any more than they objected to George W. Bush’s use of it to enrich himself and his business partners in the Texas Rangers by seizing private property to build, not merely a stadium, but a shopping mall).” Actually, people who are genuinely “on the side of inalienable property rights” are likely to be opposed to the use of eminent domain for this project. But if Kleiman means to refer to the GOP, I thought the fact that most Republicans support the pipeline is too well-known to require dwelling on. By contrast, (some) environmentalists’ change of heart on eminent domain is a development that is much less widely appreciated.

I have, however, criticized eminent domain abuses advocated by Republicans in many previous posts, such as here and here. In this 2006 post, I noted the inadequacy of the Bush administration’s response to Kelo. Few if any opponents of Kelo approve of the use of eminent domain to build sports stadiums. George W. Bush’s exploitation of it, of course, occurred many years before Kelo thrust the issue of eminent domain into the limelight, and few nonexperts remember it today.