Blog Archive

Saturday, May 12, 2012

NYTimes: An Old Texas Tale Retold: the Farmer vs. the Oil Company [or, TransCanada's Keystone XL vs. Julia Trigg Crawford]

An Old Texas Tale Retold: the Farmer vs. the Oil Company

Mike Stone/Reuters
After rejecting offers from oil companies for years, Julia Trigg Crawford and her family decided to lease land rights to their farm in Sumner, Tex.

by Saul Elbein, The New York Times, May 9, 2012

SUMNER, Tex. — When the TransCanada men first came, Julia Trigg Crawford said, they were polite. They offered money. Seven thousand dollars to let the Keystone XL pipeline cross her family’s 600-acre farm on its way from the Alberta tar sands to the refineries on the Gulf Coast.

This was nothing new. Her grandfather bought the land, in northeast Texas, about a two-hour drive from Dallas and a quarter mile from the Oklahoma border, in 1948 and started growing wheat, corn and soy. Since then, pipeline companies have tried to lease rights to cross it many times. The Crawfords always managed to persuade them to find a way around their property.
“When you allow a pipeline to cross your land, you give up certain rights to it,” Ms. Crawford said. “You can’t use your land the way you want anymore. We didn’t want to do that.”
But TransCanada did not go away. Their people kept coming back, offering more and more money.
Then on August 26, 2011, Ms. Crawford received a letter from Keystone, TransCanada’s American subsidiary. The letter made a “final offer” of $21,626. Then, it said, “if Keystone is unable to successfully negotiate the voluntary acquisition of the necessary easements, it will have to resort to the exercise of its statutory right of eminent domain.”
“In other words,” Ms. Crawford said, “sign or we’ll take it.”
The deadline on the offer was three days later. When she read the letter, Ms. Crawford said, “I panicked. I didn’t know if that meant they were going to take just the pipeline easement, or the whole pasture, or the whole farm.”
Ms. Crawford, 52, who serves as the farm’s manager, called the rest of the family. They agreed to sign. “We thought that at least if we signed we’d have some say in what happened,” she said.
They called the TransCanada representative. “He told us that if we could come up with a contract that worked for both parties, they wouldn’t condemn the land,” Ms. Crawford said.
So she and her brother spent hours bent over the kitchen table going over the lease agreement, creating a version they could live with. She presented their version to TransCanada.
“I fully expected them to counter,” she said. “There were about five or six things we wanted, and we would have been happy to take one or two.”
Then, she said, TransCanada “went full radio silence.” The Crawfords never heard back from them — until October, when they got a letter saying their land had been condemned and a lease awarded to TransCanada.
But as the Crawfords discovered, when voluntary compensation agreements are not reached, Texas law allows certain private pipeline companies to use the right of eminent domain to force landowners to let pipelines through. This was true even for TransCanada, which has yet to get State Department permission to bring the Keystone XL across the Alberta border.
The Crawfords’ condemnation hearing happened in front of a district judge. They were not invited to that hearing — landowners in Texas do not get to go to the actual condemnation hearing. They are invited only to the next step, after the condemnation, when a three-person panel of county landowners decides on a value for the property being condemned.
John Pieratt, Ms. Crawford’s lawyer, told her not to go to that appraisal hearing.
“These landowners only look at value,” Mr. Pieratt said. “By the time you get there, a judge has already decided to condemn. There’s an argument that just by showing up you agree to their right to take the land.
“The only way Texas law allows you access to a judge is if you appeal the condemnation.”
So the Crawfords are appealing. Their hearing is scheduled for July 9.
A TransCanada spokesman, Terry Cunha, said by e-mail: “We work very hard to reach voluntary compensation agreements with landowners when our pipelines cross their land. The Crawford matter is no exception. We have been working with this landowner for several years, and we will continue to do so until the hearing, which is being used to question our right to take the easement we require for this important infrastructure project.”
Out in her pasture, Ms. Crawford pointed to the Bois D’Arc Creek, a quarter-mile away. The Crawfords owns water rights to the creek, which is the farm’s main irrigation source. Keystone claims a right of way a quarter-mile long by 50 feet wide. If the condemnation is upheld, the pipe will cross under the creek, 36 inches in diameter and carrying, every day, 590,000 barrels of diluted bitumen — very dense crude oil mixed with liquid natural gas. [hmm, that's not what I have read elsewhere]
Ms. Crawford is worried about the possible contamination of her creek. She pointed out that the Keystone 1, TransCanada’s first pipeline, had a dozen spills in its first year of operation.
“I called my farm insurance agent and asked what happens if there’s a spill, I can’t water my crops, and my corn dies,” she said. “He said my insurance won’t cover that. I’d have to sue TransCanada for damages.”
The Crawfords are the last holdouts in Lamar County. (It is unclear how many are left in Texas; the company says it has 99% of the rights of way secured.) TransCanada asserts that it has used eminent domain only as “an absolute last resort” in an estimated 19 out of 1,452 land tracts in Texas. Critics dispute this number. The watchdog group We Texans, led by a Republican former candidate for governor, Debra Medina, said there have been more than 89 eminent domain actions.
Ms. Crawford has started a legal defense fund, Stand With Julia, overseen by Calvin Tillman, former mayor of Dish, Tex., and a noted anti-fracking activist. The site has raised more than $6,000, mostly in donations of under $50.
Asked if she would take TransCanada’s offer now — if it meant the full $21,000, with all of her conditions met — she did not hesitate. “No,” she said. “There’s a $20,000 check sitting in the courthouse waiting for us,” she said. “But if we touch it, game over. We lose the use of our land, and we admit what they’re doing is right.”
She shook her head. “We may lose the case. Hell, we’ll probably lose,” she said. “But I played basketball for A&M. I was raised to compete. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to get your teeth kicked in. You go out there and fight.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 10, 2012
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described diluted bitumen, the material that would be carried by the pipe. Bitumen is very dense crude oil diluted with liquid natural gas, it is not very dense crude mixed with sand and water.

No comments: