A group of Kentuckians that opposes the use of eminent domain for a proposed natural gas liquids pipeline across Kentucky has filed a lawsuit, hoping to clarify the state’s laws.
Kentuckians United to Restrain Eminent Domain (KURE) filed the declaratory judgment action in Franklin County Circuit Court this afternoon. The group is asking the court to clarify whether the Bluegrass Pipeline—a project that build 500 miles of new pipeline across Kentucky and Ohio to carry natural gas liquids from gas fracking operations—could invoke eminent domain if landowners in the pipeline’s path refuse to grant easements.
The issue has been a contentious one since the project was proposed. Previously, representatives of pipeline company Williams have said they believe the Bluegrass Pipeline qualifies for eminent domain under state law, though they would only use it as a last resort. But Kentucky’s law is vague…it doesn’t restrict eminent domain to public utilities, and states the law can only be invoked for a “public use.” Oil and natural gas pipelines are included in that definition, but various attorneys (including the Attorney General and the legal counsel for the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet) have said they don’t think a private natural gas liquids pipeline would qualify.
KURE Board member Penny Greathouse has been approached by pipeline representatives hoping to purchase an easement on a farm she owns in Franklin County. She said the current uncertainty surrounding the eminent domain issue is a problem for landowners.
“We just want a clarification so it’s either ‘yes they do,’ or ‘no they don’t,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of easements that have been signed because the person themselves have felt like they would rather be on the top end as opposed to on the lower end and they feel like they don’t know if [Williams] can take their property or not, so they’re just going to go ahead and sign, just to be done with it.”
According to state law, parties can file for declaratory judgment to seek clarification of their rights under state law. The act’s “purpose is to make the courts more serviceable to the people by way of settling controversies and affording relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights duties and relations.”
So, by filing today’s lawsuit, the pipeline’s opponents are hoping to find out the court’s interpretation of the law before a landowner ends up in court over the matter. Whatever decision the court makes will likely be appealed, but the final ruling will have statewide impact.
Williams spokesman Tom Droege wouldn't comment on the pending litigation, but says the company's position hasn't changed "Our focus is working with and communicating with the landowners along the pipeline route and reaching mutually beneficial agreements with those landowners." He says the company has obtained easements for more than 50 percent of the pipeline's route in Kentucky.
KURE is hoping for a decision in January; there are several pre-filed legislative bills that also seek to clarify Kentucky’s eminent domain law, and regardless of the court’s decision those could still be up for consideration when the General Assembly reconvenes early next year.