Effingham County’s state legislative delegation made it clear earlier this week it does not support the proposed Palmetto Pipeline.
State Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville) and state Reps. Jon Burns (R-Newington) and Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon) said at Wednesday’s Effingham Chamber of Commerce Eggs and Issues Review breakfast that they haven’t seen a reason for the pipeline to be approved. But they also pointed out the decision on the controversial pipeline, which Kinder Morgan is seeking to build from Belton, S.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., isn’t theirs to make.
Hitchens, who is a member of the House appropriations, public safety and homeland security, and economic development and tourism committees, said the company’s ability to use eminent domain is troubling.
“Private property rights have been the cornerstone of our society since the beginning of our country,” he said. “I am worried where eminent domain goes when you let a for-profit company take people’s property.”
Burns too chafed at the prospect of a private company using eminent domain — a power ordinarily reserved for governments for public works and roads projects — and acknowledged many lawmakers did not know the legislation existed granting specific use of eminent domain for private endeavors.
“Obviously somebody did,” he said, “and they intend to exercise it. I have a real large problem with granting eminent domain to a private, for-profit company.”
Hill, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the company has not put forth a compelling argument for the 360-mile, $1 billion project.
“I don’t feel like it’s been handled well,” he said. “There may be a good case to be made, but I haven’t heard it yet.”
Hill also called into question the transparency of the process, saying there has been “an amazing lack of transparency in this whole process.”
Hill also said he will support a measure in the next General Assembly session to set up more transparency in future such projects.
Burns, a former state transportation board member, is the chairman of the House Game, Fish and Parks Committee and he also sits on the appropriations and transportation committees. He called for Kinder Morgan to put forth “a better justification of what this pipeline and energy source can do for us in coastal Georgia, where we were bearing the brunt” of the pipeline’s proposed route. Under a potential route, the pipeline will run through Georgia for 200 miles and its longest stretch in any county is 38 miles through Effingham.
Burns also said more information from Kinder Morgan would be helpful, “but it would take a lot of information for me to change my mind on the need for this structure at this time.”
Hitchens added he doesn’t see why the pipeline needs to be built. The company has said in several public meetings on the project it has commitments in hand from fuel vendors, and the pipeline will carry a maximum of 167,000 barrels per day. An air permit application Kinder Morgan plans to file is expected to state that 25,000 barrels a day will be unloaded at a terminal to be built outside of Richmond Hill.
“It doesn’t look to me like we have a shortage of petroleum products now,” Hitchens said. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to do a whole lot for our area.”
House Resolution 885, which will be voted in next January’s session, calls for such projects to use as much of the existing rights-of-way for pipeline extensions. The General Assembly session ended April 2, and the five public meetings required of the company were held during the session. Hitchens said he, Burns and six other representatives attended the state Department of Transportation public hearing on the issue April 21 in Richmond Hill. Kinder Morgan officials have said they expect to use existing rights-of-way for about 80 percent of the route.
But is the remainder of the path — and the company’s capability to use eminent domain to acquire the land it seeks — that continues to trouble legislators.
“We have highway rights-of-way, we have gas line rights-of-way, we have railway rights-of-way and we have utility rights-of-way all across the state,” Burns said. “And they need to utilize those without taking any more property out of production.”
Hitchens added that if a landowner grants an easement for the pipeline, he will get paid, but he must continue to pay taxes on that land and the use of the property will be limited severely.
Whatever DOT Commissioner Russell McMurry decides, Hitchens said, may not be the conclusion of the matter. Instead, it very likely will wind up in the hands of a judge.
“Whoever loses is probable going to court and some judge at the appellate level is going to make the ultimate decision,” he said.