Why you should care
Because pipeline opposition is diversifying across the nation.
Flickering on the computer screen is a neon-green line of progress for the oil industry. The would-be pipeline stretches off the nation’s energy skeleton in Belton, South Carolina, bending a leg down the coastline and through Savannah, Georgia, before planting its foot firmly in the lucrative soils of Jacksonville, Florida.
Those who would profit from it say they see more than just dollar signs — they see the lifeblood fueling the arteries of the American economy. That worldview was encapsulated in an April 2015 speech to energy conference attendees by Richard Kinder, co-founder of Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America. Kinder predicted their pipeline would create almost $4 billion in economic activity over two decades for Georgia alone. “People want to flip the switch and turn the lights on and heat their house,” Kinder said, “but they don’t think about the massive infrastructure and billions of dollars needed to get to that point.”
You hear the sad stories of people who have been there for generations forced off their land. Do they really get the value of their property?
Phil Bell, retired engineer, Columbia, South Carolina
There is another perspective, of course. Zoom in and that broad view gives way to a granular scope, the only lens known to the locals whose property would be seized under eminent domain to make that neon-green line come alive. Here, the acres of farms, tree nurseries, marshlands and river homes are the fruits of locals working to create a better life. “You hear the sad stories of people who have been there for generations forced off their land,” says Phil Bell, a retired engineer in Columbia, South Carolina. “Do they really get the value of their property?”
That clash of ideals has pitted the voracious appetite of capitalism against red-blooded residents firmly planted in conservative country. It has drawn odd battle lines — a private-industry titan receiving ire from both environmentalists and free-market lovers. Eminent domain concerns could also be a rallying call for activists who oppose Trump’s border wall, which, if built, is expected to swallow up swaths of private land. And in an age of high-profile pipeline protests, most notably led by the left last year in North Dakota, the movement provides another model for opposition. Says Ilya Somin, a property law professor at George Mason University: “The opportunity for environmentalists is that they have the possibility of making coalitions with people who would not normally support their causes.”
Driving through dusty back roads, Tonya Bonitatibus is flanked by black swamplands filled with jagged trunks and the knobbled knees of thousand-year-old cypress trees. “This is absolutely where our heritage lies. This is us,” says Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper who has led the anti-pipeline movement here. The briny water is corrosive — a bad combination for steel and lead piping, she says. And the marshes are especially crucial because they form the river’s lymphatic system, as Bonitatibus explains — the liver and kidneys that clean out the toxins of a waterway streaming into countless communities along its 300-mile route.
Kinder Morgan revealed plans for the Palmetto Pipeline in late 2014. Soon after, the Texas company’s surveyors began roaming South Carolina swamps and Georgia woods like these, promising the project would increase competition and lower utility costs. At first, their presence barely registered, and in April 2015 the company stated confidently it would be pumping millions of gallons of gas down to the Sunshine State as early as July 2017. But as spring gave way to the summer swelter, the billion-dollar pet project incensed locals, particularly after Kinder Morgan employees who were caught trespassing on the family land of conservative media mogul Billy Morris boasted to police: “You can’t stop the pipeline. They have enough money to push the pipeline right through the country.”
The backlash was fierce, despite the company’s public apology (and a $30,000 donation to a local school). Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and state House Majority Leader Jon Burns, who owned property along the pipeline’s route, spoke forcefully against the project, and the Georgia Department of Transportation rejected the Palmetto Pipeline proposal, claiming that it demonstrated neither a “public convenience or necessity.” And in South Carolina, where eminent domain laws were less clear, the attorney general weighed in with an opinion granting pipeline companies the right to eminent domain for “natural gas, water and electricity” — but, crucially, not oil, and not necessarily for businesses that serve private customers.
Property rights, rather than environmental ones, are increasingly forming the brunt of such arguments against pipelines — and not just in Georgia and South Carolina, which have recently passed laws backing landowners. Just three days before the crucial New Hampshire presidential primary last year, the Union Leader reported that 627 of 836 property owners in the Granite State had denied Kinder Morgan access to their land for a planned natural gas line. Two statehouse bills soon followed (ultimately, they failed). Similar concerns have spread from west Texas to Arkansas and Tennessee, and are much more common “over the last few years, as pipeline takings have grown in importance since the fracking boom began,” Somin says.
In the bayous of Louisiana, environmentalists, fishermen and landowners have joined up against a right-of-way request from Energy Transfer Partners. That name should sound familiar: It’s the same company behind the contentious Dakota Access pipeline.
Some activists across the South reject the type of rhetoric that filled social media streams during the height of the #NODAPL protests last September. For many of them, adopting a label as simple as “environmentalist” comes with baggage that can sink their cause. Besides, such terminology hardly holds true for a lifer like Bonitatibus, whose family leans conservative and has long owned property in northeast Georgia. Considering her audience, she emphasizes concerns about eminent domain and local fishing, calling herself a conservationist rather than adopting a pox-on-pipelines populism. “It never made sense for us to talk about the river and environmental issues from the get-go,” Bonitatibus says, and it’s hard to argue with her results.
Still, opposition hasn’t quelled the oil industry’s interest in expansion. Nothing feeds hunger like scarcity, and the global drop in the price of oil has slashed prices, compelling companies to look for new fields for profit. In many cases, energy companies remain bullish, encouraged in part by President Donald Trump, who has looked to revive the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines. The industry brass insist they will be able to work with local property owners. That confidence holds true even in sites of previous defeat: After the Kinder Morgan conflict, another pipeline project — the $3 billion Sabal Trail spanning Alabama, Georgia and Florida — was approved by a federal judge in August. Just two months later, it drew the ire of environmentalists after a (relatively small) drilling leak spilled into the Withlacoochee River in south Georgia. (Sabal Trail Transmission did not respond to a request for comment.)
Kinder Morgan employed six lobbyists working the Georgia legislature this spring, and in June a moratorium on permits for the Palmetto Pipeline will expire. There are “no plans to resurrect it at this time,” a Kinder Morgan representative tells OZY, declining to provide new comment on other questions. However, as pipeline projects continue to proliferate, that likely won’t stem the war being waged in the courts of both public opinion and the judiciary.
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