Landowners Question If Pipeline Companies Seizing Land to Export Oil and Gas Counts as ‘Public Good’

Read time: 6 mins
Hope Rosinski photographs Bayou Bridge pipeline construction on her land

Hope Rosinski kept watch over the construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline as one of its segments was installed on her land in Arcadia Parish, Louisiana. While she had signed an agreement allowing Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, to use her property, she had little choice in the matter and she didn’t want the pipeline there. 

Like anyone along the route of proposed oil or gas pipelines, Rosinski was in a position where, had she not signed the agreement, her land would have been taken anyway by virtue of eminent domain — a right the government can assert to seize private property for public use. So she negotiated the best contract she could, which included a clause specifying that the company could not begin work until all its permits were in place. 

But with the crude oil export ban lifted and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports on the rise, landowners like Rosinski are starting to question whether or not giving up their land to serve these private aims qualifies as “public good.”

The Bayou Bridge pipeline will carry oil across southern Louisiana from Lake Charles, near the Texas border, to St. James along the Mississippi River. Rosinski's home in Arcadia Parish is west of the Atchafalaya Basin, an environmentally sensitive National Heritage Area. Construction there continues despite an ongoing legal challenge against building the pipeline through the basin.

When environmental groups succeeded in getting a federal judge to grant a February 24 order that temporarily halted work in the Atchafalaya Basin while a permit for the pipeline is being challenged, Rosinski wondered whether construction could still legally move forward on her land. On March 4, she questioned Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC’s right to proceed. 

Since the Bayou Bridge pipeline is not permitted to be constructed in the Atchafalaya Basin and the future of the pipeline is in question, it is not permitted on my property as per our agreement,” she wrote in an email to a right-of-way agent. “Please refrain from using my property as these matters are not resolved.” Bayou Bridge LLC responded by filing an injunction against Rosinski, preventing her from interfering with construction of the pipeline, even though she had done nothing to stop them. The company sought payment from her for allegedly delaying the project and for the legal fees incurred in filing the injunction. 

At a hearing a week later, a judge ruled the company's injunction to stop Rosinski from interfering with construction could stand, but that she owed the company nothing since her actions hadn't caused a delay in the project. 

A construction working installing the Bayou Bridge pipeline on Hope Rosinski's land
The Bayou Bridge pipeline being installed in Hope Rosinski’s backyard.

Heavy equipment and pipe sections at the Bayou Bridge construction site in Arcadia Parish, Louisiana
Construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Arcadia Parish, Louisiana.

Rosinski and I went to her house after the hearing to document the construction that was in process. She expressed her disappointment that the judge didn’t interpret her contract the way she did, but was relieved he didn’t award the company damages for a work stoppage that, in fact, never happened. As I took pictures of the construction site, a security car from Hub Enterprises, a private security firm working for Energy Transfer Partners, pulled up and blocked her driveway. Rosinski walked up to the car and asked the driver not to block her driveway, and the car moved away. 

Rosinski believes she is being punished for standing up for her rights. “I don’t feel like I’m in America,” she said. 

Security car from Hub Enterprises at the end of Hope Rosinski's driveway
Hub Enterprises’ security car sitting at the end of Hope Rosinski’s driveway.

She is against a Louisiana state bill, HB 727, which has been approved in committee and if passed, would considerably strengthen penalties against pipeline protesters and landowners, like herself, who consider standing in a pipeline company’s way. The bill is based on a model produced by the conservative, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Several other states have introduced similar bills that are essentially anti-pipeline protest legislation.

She thinks the law is meant to stop opponents of the pipeline, including herself, from speaking out. They are not the bad guys, she said. Instead, she finds fault with the pipeline companies for using the threat of eminent domain to seize private land when they just plan to export the product. “Whatever happens on my land, I don't want to facilitate oil being shipped to our enemies,” she said. “I don’t know where the exported oil will go.”

Growing Resistance to Oil and Gas Pipelines 

At the 2017 Aspen Institute Forum on Global Energy, Economy, and Security, a presentation and report titled “Abundance and Resistance” addressed growing resistance to proposed oil and gas pipelines as a major threat to infrastructure projects. The presenters were former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who now works for the lobbying firm Van Ness Feldman (its clients include Energy Transfer Partners), and Marvin Odum, former president of Shell Oil.

The Achilles heel of the industry may be that people are very resistant to construction of necessary infrastructure,” stated the report, which was sponsored by half a dozen oil and gas companies and two law firms representing them and included a list of the type of people opposing pipelines and their motivations. 

The report identifies a growing number of pipeline opponents that include those in the “Keep It In The Ground” movement and NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard). It also calls out a new category of pipeline opponents, “Democrats and Tea Party types” who want to stop the use of eminent domain for pipelines exporting oil and gas. 

Private Gain, Public Good?

More landowners faced with the prospect of signing over use of their property to pipeline companies are challenging those companies' power to use eminent domain under the guise that the projects serve the public good. Some argue exporting energy could be against the public’s interest because decreasing supplies could potentially mean higher prices for American consumers.

“Public use does not include shipping (gas) to China,” David Bookbinder, chief counsel for the Niskanen Center, a property rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C., told the Houston Chronicle. “We’re saying no.”

The Niskanen Center is already preparing challenges against eminent domain for pipelines that feed liquefied natural gas exports terminals, though the argument has not been tried in court yet. 

Texas eminent domain lawyer Luke Ellis, told the Houston Chronicle: “The public interest question surrounding exports provides an opening to challenge land takings in court, and is almost certainly on the minds of pipeline executives.”

Rosinski doesn’t regret standing up to Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC, despite the injunction against her. She plans to continue to stand up for her rights, though the pipeline is already installed on her land.

Main image: Hope Rosinski taking pictures of the installation of the Bayou Bridge pipeline on her land. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky © 2018

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