Julia Trigg Crawford by StateImpact/NPR
by Walter Brasch
Julia Trigg Crawford of Direct, Texas, is the manager of a 650-acre farm that her grandfather first bought in 1948. The farm produces mostly corn, wheat, and soy. On its north border is the Red River; to the west is the Bois d'Arc Creek.
TransCanada is an Alberta-based corporation that is building the controversial Keystone Pipeline that will carry bitumen--thicker, more corrosive and toxic, than crude oil--through 36-inch diameter pipes from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, mostly to be exported. The $2.3 billion southern segment, about 485 miles from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast is nearly complete. With the exception of a 300-mile extension between Cushing and Steele City, Neb., the rest of the $7 billion 1,959 mile pipeline is being held up until President Obama either succumbs to corporate and business pressures or blocks the construction because of environmental and health concerns.
When TransCanada first approached Crawford's father in 2008, and offered to pay about $7,000 for easement rights, he refused, telling the company, "We don't want you here." He said the corporation could reroute the line, just as other pipeline companies in oil-rich Texas had done for decades. TransCanada increased the offer in the following years, but the family still refused. In August 2012, with Dick Crawford's daughter, Julia Trigg Crawford now managing the farm, TransCanada offered $21,626 for an easement--and a threat. "We were given three days to accept their offer," she says, "and if we didn't, they would condemn the land and seize it anyway." She still refused.
And so, TransCanada, a foreign corporation exercised the right of eminent domain to seize two acres of the farm so it could build a pipeline.
Governments may seize private property if that property must be taken for public use and the owner is given fair compensation. Although the exercise of eminent domain to seize land for the public good is commonly believed to be restricted to the government, federal law permits natural gas companies to use it. To get that "right," all TransCanada had to do was fill out a one-page form and check a box that the corporation to declare itself to be a "common carrier." The Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas in Texas, merely processes the paper, rather than investigates the claim; it has admitted it has never denied "common carrier" status. In the contorted logic that is often spun by corporations, TransCanada then declared itself to be a common carrier because the Railroad Commission said it was, even though the Commission's jurisdiction applies only to intrastate, not interstate, carriers.
On Aug. 21, 2012, the day before Judge Bill Harris of Lamar County rendered his decision on Crawford's complaint, the sheriff, with the judge's signature, issued a writ of possession giving TransCanada the right to seize the land. The next day, Harris issued a 15-word decision, transmitted by his iPhone, that upheld TransCanada's rights. In Texas, as in most states, the landowner can only challenge the settlement not the action.
Crawford's refusal to sell is based upon a mixture of reasons. The Crawford Farm is home to one of the most recognized Caddo Nation Indian burial sites in Texas, and the 30 acre pasture that TransCanada wants to trench represents the southern most boundary of this archeological site. Both the Texas Historical Commission and TransCanada's archeological firm concur that the vast majority of this 30 acres pasture in question qualifies for the National Registry of Historic Places. An archeological dig undertaken after TransCanada showed up to seize the land recovered 145 artifacts in just a 1,200 foot by 20 foot section, and three feet deep. But the executive director of the Texas Historical Commission recently sent a letter stating that no new artifacts had been found in the slice of land TransCanada planned to build.
Another reason Crawford refused to be bought out was that she didn't want TransCanada to drill under the Bois d'Arc Creek "where we have state-given water rights." That creek irrigates about 400 acres of her land. "Any leak, she says, "would contaminate our equipment, and then our crops in minutes." It isn't unreasonable to expect there will be an incident that could pollute the water, air, and soil for several miles.
During the past decade, there were 6,367 pipeline incidents, resulting in 154 deaths, 540 injuries, and more than 56 injuries, and $4.7 billion in property damage, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. A report released a year ago by Cornell University's Global Labor Institute concludes that economic damage caused by potential spills from the Keystone pipeline could outweigh the benefits of jobs created by the project. In the past three years, there have already been 14 spills on the operational parts of the Keystone Pipeline.
Crawford and her attorney, Wendi Hammond, have challenged TransCanada's right to seize public property, arguing not only is TransCanada, which had net earnings of $1.3 billion last year, a foreign corporation, but it also doesn't qualify as a "common carrier" since the benefit is primarily to itself. However, the Texas Court of Appeals may not rule until after the pipeline is laid down and covered. And even if it does rule for Crawford, TransCanada is likely to appeal. "They have far more lawyers and funds than we have," says Crawford, who held a music festival last month to help raise funds. Additional donations have come from around the world, many from those who aren't immediately affected by oil and gas exploration, transportation, and processing, but who understand the need to fight a battle that could, at some time, affect them.
"The company basically goes to court, files condemnation petitions, says, "We are common carrier, have the power of eminent domain, we are taking this property.' And that's all there is to it," says Debra Medina, of WeTexans, a grassroots organization opposed to the seizure of private land by private companies.