A Travis County judge has ruled construction on a natural gas pipeline through the Texas Hill Country can proceed. The state district court decision Tuesday marks a major setback for landowners and local governments that sued to stop energy company Kinder Morgan from using eminent domain to build the pipeline.
The proposed 420-mile pipeline would run through the Texas Hill Country carrying natural gas from the Permian Basin to East Texas. In their lawsuit, opponents basically put the whole system on trial, arguing the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that regulates pipelines, wouldn't provide enough oversight for the pipeline's construction and maintenance.
Under state law, pipeline companies can chart their own routes, claiming the right of eminent domain – a process by which public and private entities can take private property, even if a property owner doesn't want to sell.
At public meetings hosted by local governments and the pipeline company itself, some residents said they worried about the impact the pipeline could have on Hill County geology, water resources and safety. Others decried the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of climate change.
In her ruling, Judge Lora Livingston said Kinder Morgan’s actions didn’t violate the state Constitution.
But Livingston's decision, provided to KUT by one of the plaintiffs, included a critique of the process, even while finding it constitutionally sound.
"The Court is concerned with a power that, when exercised by a governmental entity, must be done in the harsh light of public scrutiny of open meetings and public notices, but, when exercised by a private entity, may be determined without public notice by a select few driven primarily by their financial gain," Livingston wrote. "However, the Court must also be conscious of its role to apply the law and not dictate the policy of the state."
"I feel like she showed sympathy to what we were trying to demonstrate, but at the same time undervalued her own authority to rule against the Railroad Commissions and Kinder Morgan," said Andy Sansom, one of the plaintiffs, whose conservation land is in the path of the pipeline.
Sansom says his coalition of plaintiffs plans to appeal the ruling.
Allen Fore, vice president of public affairs at Kinder Morgan, said the company was "pleased" with the ruling.
"The judge obviously made an informed decision ... and what's clear is that the decisions regarding pipeline siting belong in the Legislature," he said. "Any changes should come from the Legislature and not the courts."
There was a major push to increase oversight and regulation of pipeline projects in Texas last legislative session. Those efforts were opposed by industry and, eventually, died.
This post has been updated.
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