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Another Voice: Oil and gas pipelines abuse property rights

By Ronald Fraser

Starting in the late 1800s, state and federal legislatures began delegating their sovereign eminent domain police powers to oil and gas pipeline companies. A growing nation needed a dependable supply of fossil fuels.

Since then, even now as evidence mounts that burning fossil fuels is a threat to the well-being of the Earth itself, private property owners who do not want their land used for the construction of new oil or gas pipelines are routinely served court orders favoring the pipeline company’s demand for land.

Political resistance against the construction of new pipelines is already building.

Last year President Obama rejected the 1,179-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Further east, finding it fails to meet the state’s water quality standards, New York State recently denied issuance of a Clean Water Act water quality certificate for the proposed 124-mile Constitution Pipeline.

But there is another, even more fundamental, reason for ending the oil and gas pipeline industry’s dependence on eminent domain. In America, governments are bound to protect, not abuse, the rights of private property owners. Taking private property to support a corporate activity that is harmful to the public welfare is un-American.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution reads, “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

While the Constitution limits a government’s eminent domain power to the taking of private property for public use – for public roads, public schools, etc. – over the years legislatures and the courts have broadened the use of eminent domain to include the taking of private property for public purposes.

It seems, with the passage of time, today’s pipeline operators consider the courts business partners and have forgotten that their long-standing use of eminent domain is a public trust, not a private power.

Why should state and federal governments continue to empower pipeline operators to force private property owners, against their personal conscience and environmental concerns, to forfeit their land for a purpose that potentially puts the well-being of the Earth at risk? The original public purpose of fossil fuels has evolved into a public harm that now outweighs the benefits.

Delegation of eminent domain powers to oil and gas corporations is no longer justified as a special form of corporate welfare but now violates a cardinal principle of American government – the protection of private property from government abuse.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., is a Western New York writer and author of the new book “America, Democracy & YOU: Where Have all the Citizens Gone?”