August 21, 2012 by Robert Tharp at 12:00:00 am
With construction now underway on the Texas leg of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, players on both sides of the politically polarizing project are anxiously awaiting an east Texas judge’s ruling on a closely watched challenge to TransCanada's use of eminent domain to obtain right-of-way use of private property.
In a recent Law360 update on the court battle between an individual property owner and TransCanada, real estate and eminent domain lawyer Charles Fiscus of Shackelford Melton & McKinley in Dallas described how the two sides are locked in a battle over the oil company’s designation as a “common carrier,” which allows it to seize private property. As such, TransCanada must prove the project will benefit the public, and not just the company.
Fiscus said the Crawford case was “the exception as opposed to the rule” when it comes to condemnation suits brought by oil and gas companies because the vast majority of such cases are settled. But Fiscus noted that the case raises issues that should cause litigators to take pause when seeking a judicial condemnation judgment based on common carrier status. Because property ownership is a politically and emotionally charged issue, Fiscus said the perception that private land is being taken for a commercial purpose raises the evidentiary bar.
“The further your client gets away from being a public entity ... the more you’re going to have to make sure you can prove you are taking the land for public use,” he said.
But the high-profile nature of the case makes it likely that public officials will be paying close attention to the ability of common carriers to condemn land, particularly with a seat on the Railroad Commission set to be filled in November, Fiscus said.
“The pipeline is coming through a lot of farmland and land that has been in family hands for three or four generations,” he said. “People are attached to their land.”
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