3/06/2007

Eminent domain and the high cost of gasoline: Atlanta GA Journal-Constitution, 2/25/07

Opinion

By Tom Baxter and Jim Galloway

For two years, Republicans at the state Capitol have tortured themselves over eminent domain, the seizure of private property for the greater good.

GOP lawmakers and a GOP governor have dared the world and its courts to chisel away at individual rights in Georgia.

They’re about to tackle the topic again. But this time, the outcome is likely to be different. Senate Bill 173 pits the sacrament of land against your right to cheap gasoline for your cars, diesel for your tractors, and fuel for your jets.

In the past, outrage over eminent domain has been driven by government seizure of real estate for purposes of economic development. But in a sense, this has been something of a straw man.

Utilities, not the evil gummint, are the most common employers of eminent domain, in this state and elsewhere. And in Georgia, utilities generally get what they want - unless they screw up in horrible, horrible fashion.

Which reminds us of the story of Colonial Pipeline Co. It operates a dual set of underground pipes that stretch from Louisiana through Georgia and clear up to the New York City harbor, providing this side of the United States with all sorts of liquid petroleum products.

Back in the mid-1990s, the company hit an astounding stretch of bad luck. The federal government declared Colonial’s leaky pipes a hazard. Colonial pipes flooded the well water of a Bibb County pecan farmer with fuel. He turned out to be an influential state lawmaker.

And the company tried to muscle a new pipeline through the pristine plantations of some very, very wealthy landowners in south Georgia. These were the kind of people who could motivate then-Gov. Zell Miller to sign legislation in 1995 that subjected petroleum pipelines to a permitting system.

Before using eminent domain to expand, pipeline companies now are required to get approval from the state Department of Transportation and the state Environmental Protection Division.

But times change. Things happen, like Hurricane Katrina, the occupation of Iraq, and a near-nuclear Iran.

Five new refineries in Louisiana are set for completion in 2010. Colonial says it needs to construct a third, 500-mile pipeline stretching from Baton Rouge to holding tanks in Cobb County, to keep up with the demand. At an estimated cost of $1 billion.

S.B. 173, sponsored by Ross Tolleson (R-Perry), passed out of a Senate committee last week. Delta Air Lines, whose name is magic around the Capitol these days, spoke in favor of it. The added pipeline is specifically named in Gov. Sonny Perdue’s energy program.

The bill would strip away the requirements for DOT and EPD permits - for Colonial and one other petroleum pipeline company in Georgia. No other utility is subject to them, argued Colonial spokesman Sam Whitehead. (Sarcastic tree-huggers no doubt would point out that electricity and natural gas rarely leave oil slicks in groundwater.)

The permits cost time and money. “Our best estimate is that if everything went well, it would take eight to 12 months,” Whitehead said. But that’s only a guess. Though the legislation has been on the books for a dozen years, no company has actually gone through the process. Ever.

The bill would also let Colonial to relocate portions of its third line within a two-mile swath - one mile on each side of its current route - to avoid environmentally sensitive land, historic sites, and crowds.

“Oh, my God, that just might include anything,” said Robert Ray. He was the state House member with the pecan farm. A conservative Democrat, he retired from the Legislature last year. “I just can’t believe the new Republican Legislature is opening up these situations that were partially resolved,” he said.

Whitehead, the Colonial spokesman, said his company has changed with the times, and is more sensitive about deploying surveyors onto property it does not own. “Certainly, in these ensuing 11 years, we do these purchase of easements completely differently than was done at the time,” he said.

Republicans are handling S.B. 173 very carefully. So carefully that they’ve included two Democrats among the four top signatures, the better to spread the blame if things go wrong. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle issued a statement on Friday acknowledging the balancing act that must be struck.

Cheap gas is a must. As is fuel for crop harvests. “However, he recognizes that private property rights are paramount,” said Cagle spokeswoman Jaillene Hunter.

Colonial recognizes GOP discomfort with the issue. “We understand it’s a sensitive issue, and we would prefer not to be doing this,” Whitehead said. “But it’s a matter of needing to expand the capacity for petroleum products into not just Atlanta, but the entire state of Georgia.”

If you still have any doubt about the ultimate fortunes of S.B. 173, remember one thing: You live in a state that, 18 months ago, shut down nearly every school in the state to make sure farmers had enough diesel to gather up their peanuts.


Atlanta GA Journal-Constitution: http://www.ajc.com