Power lines, pipelines and property rights

Citizen-Times Guest Column

Property owners in Henderson and Polk counties are learning about the limits on their rights to control the property they own and to control what happens to the hillside they view from their back porch.

When electric power lines and pipelines are needed for the public use and benefit, the state of North Carolina grants private companies the right to condemn the property necessary for their projects. So when Duke Energy provides a case that the increasing use of electricity in Western North Carolina justifies the installation of a new power line from South Carolina leading up to Asheville, they are granted the ability to condemn the property along a selected route for the transmission line. While Duke Energy must pay for the easements, the price can be set by a third party if the current property owner simply does not want to offer an easement for sale. And the current property owner has limited recourse in their attempts to hold on to what they own.

Legitimate questions about the need for this electric power line or the alternatives for this project can be raised. Receiving a report documenting that the project is truly for public benefit is a reasonable expectation for people who may have their property condemned for the public interest. A property owner should expect that Duke Energy, or any private company, would show that alternatives have been considered and ruled out for overwhelming reasons.

Living through the experience where a private company takes what you or your neighbor owns and provides you with a price you did not agree to can teach us all a valuable lesson in our country’s laws. I hope we all ask our elected members of Congress and General Assembly if they believe the bar providing a private company the power to condemn our land is set at the right level.

This same process is also currently playing out in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska along the 1,179-mile long route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Property owners objected to the route and took Keystone to court. For their part, Keystone proudly states that they have voluntary agreements in place for the portion of the route that goes through Montana (but not South Dakota) — though these voluntary agreements were entered into with the property owners knowing that Keystone can simply condemn the needed property and allow a third party to set the price of the easement.

But isn’t the Keystone XL pipeline necessary for national interest? Probably not. Oil from the Canadian Tar Sands already is piped to refineries in the United States through existing pipelines owned by Keystone and Enbridge; and the price of crude oil has been dropping to record low levels while crude oil reserves have increased. So it is hard to imagine that the Keystone XL Pipeline is a national priority worthy of providing a private foreign company with the ability to condemn personal property.

As Congressmen Patrick McHenry and Mark Meadows along with Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis engage Duke Energy on the proposed route for the new electric power line, we have a unique opportunity to see if the real concern is our property rights (as opposed to simply a not-in-my-back-yard philosophy) by viewing their position on the Keystone XL pipeline approval. To date, most Republicans are taking the position that it is good to give Keystone the power to condemn people’s property along the Keystone XL pipeline route if it creates some construction jobs.

I hope people in Henderson and Polk counties take a moment to reflect on where they stand on both power line and pipeline projects that allow private companies the ability to condemn people’s property to implement their infrastructure projects. Our country’s condemnation laws are necessary, and allow us to build the infrastructure for our modern energy, water supply, communications and transportation systems — but we each should ask how high the bar should be set to grant private companies the power to condemn people’s property. And we should apply that principle evenly across the country.

Jim Tolbert provided environmental consulting services to Fortune 500 companies for 28 years prior to moving to North Carolina. He lives in Asheville.