One of the intriguing, all-too-familiar stories about eminent domain, possibly apocryphal, involves the outraged landowner who during a formal meeting complains how an oil and gas pipeline company has run roughshod over his property rights to lay pipeline across his land — only for an oil and gas lobbyist also present to echo this outrage, barking: “That’s terrible! Which pipeline company was it? We’ll speak to them about this!”
If the oil and gas lobby has truly been admonishing bad actors in their industry, they haven’t admonished enough of them or no one’s paying attention. Here we are in another legislative session with Republican state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst’s eminent domain bill again rising from the dead to plead for common-sense rights for landowners across Texas. To us, the situation seems more critical than ever considering the rapid urbanization of Texas and its emergence as the foremost state in energy production.
It’s an awkward situation indeed for Republicans in charge. They champion oil and gas producers (who fund their political campaigns), yet like to portray themselves as champions of property rights. Plus the taxation of oil and gas revenue funds much of the state budget so we don’t have to ponder things like a state income tax. This may explain why Kolkhorst’s legislation has failed to gain traction in previous sessions. This time her bill is aimed solely at private, for-profit entities but it’s nonetheless aroused opposition of public entities sensing this could be a prelude to making matters difficult for them all.
During last week’s Senate State Affairs Committee hearing, there was no shortage of testimony from victimized landowners. A Hays County retiree told of a Kinder Morgan plan to lay a $2 billion, 430-mile gas pipeline from the Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast cutting across her 26 acres of rural land — and close by homes inhabited by her and her husband and son and grandson: “Within a short period of time, we were served with a restraining order and a court order for $100,000 against my husband, who is 76 and has never spoken to them or met them.”
As highlighted in the Sunday Trib’s exhaustive Q&A with Texas Farm Bureau leadership, the time for reform of the eminent domain process is at hand as our state seeks to support growing communities, bolster the oil and gas industry, yet protect isolated rural landowners. This legislation’s key provisions — mandating open meetings where landowners collectively can get answers to their questions plus minimum requirements in contracts — are smart. And, yes, there is power for informed landowners in numbers, as these meetings would guarantee. Open meetings might even expedite matters for energy companies. And these involve, as Kolkhorst noted, for-profit companies.
That said, we believe serious refining is needed of this bill in how low-ball offers, due process and even attorney’s fees are addressed in legal appeals, a concern the pipeline industry and some senators have aired. Our proposal: Ensure passage of key legislative provisions on open meetings and contract minimums, then determine if further regulation is needed. Maybe this time pipeline companies running roughshod over Texas landowners will get the message.