In Washington, DC, the fight over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline mostly divides common enemies: Republicans and Democrats; environmentalists and fossil fuel interests; big business and the federal bureaucracy.
But though the project exists in a state of suspended animation, TransCanada — the company that wants to connect the tar sands in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico — is preparing to build anyhow. In particular, on the portion of the pipeline that would link Nebraska to Texas, TransCanada has threatened to use disputed eminent domain powers to condemn privately held land, over the owners’ objections. And that’s creating unusual allies — Occupiers, Tea Partiers, environmentalists, individualists — united to stop TransCanada from threatening water supplies, ancient artifacts, and people’s basic property rights.
In 2007 TransCanada’s agents at Universal Field Services approached Randy Thompson, 64, of Martell, NE, asking to survey his farm land. Thompson assented at first, under the assumption that he’d have final say over whether a Canadian company would be allowed to build anything on his property.
“Once I found out a little bit more about what was going on, I rescinded that permission,” Thompson told TPM by phone on Sunday. “[W]e did meet with them once, maybe a couple times. We told them, you don’t have a permit yet, so we absolutely do not want this thing on our property. So until you actually get a permit we have no reason to have any further discussion about this. They continually called me, like once a month or whenever they felt like it. Kept the pressure on us. Made us an offer, $9000. Whatever the offer was, we just don’t want the damn thing on our property.”
That’s when TransCanada really stepped up the pressure.
“In July 2010, we got a written letter from TransCanada, they told us if you don’t accept this within 30 days, we’re going to immediately start eminent domain proceedings against you,” Thompson said. “They didn’t say anything about a permit. I tried to contact the Governor’s office. All I got back was a form letter talking about the pipeline.”
It turns out TransCanada used the same approach with many other landowners — with some success. “It was pretty effective, it kinda scares the hell out of you,” Thompson said.
A TransCanada letter to another owner - who requested anonymity - reads, “This letter is Keystone’s final offer, and it will remain open for one month after the date of this letter or until you reject it. We believe the amount of the offer [$5,280.00] is a premium price for your property. Keystone’s offer is high because the company prefers to acquire this property through negotiation and to avoid litigation and its associated delays and debts.”
The letter goes on, “While we hope to acquire this property through negotiation, if we are unable to do so we will be forced to invoke the power of eminent domain and will initiate condemnation proceedings against this property promptly after the expiration of this one month period.”
Julia Trigg Crawford, 53, of Lamar County, TX faced similar pressure. On Friday, a judge voided a temporary restraining order she’d secured against TransCanada on the grounds that the company is threatening to build the pipeline across a portion of her 600 acre property that archaeological authorities say is teeming with Caddo nation artifacts. It also threatens a creek she uses to irrigate her land and wells her family uses for drinking water.
“I do not want my place to be a guinea pig on this,” she told my by telephone. Those practical concerns lay atop a more fundamental question of whether a for-profit company should be able to seize private land for profit.
“I’m looking out my window every hour,” Crawford said. “While they don’t have a permit to build anything, they have the right to start construction…. A foreign for profit pipeline was allowed to condemn my land without my being allowed to talk to a judge.”
Thompson described himself as a conservative guy who supported Republicans, but had never been involved in politics beyond exercising the basic right to vote. Crawford calls herself a “political agnostic” who eschewed activism until TransCanada came into her life. But they, along with others in their position, and sympathizers have come together, with the help of Bold Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb, who became involved in the Keystone fight in May 2010, after landowners raised concerns at a State Department hearing on the pipeline.
“They actually don’t have eminent domain authority in Nebraska until they have their permits,” she explained in a phone interview. “It would have been fair for TransCanada to say once we have a permit we could take you to court for eminent domain. Letting landowners know that they could face eminent domain proceedings is one thing…but they were just bullying these landowners.”
The result: protests in Paris, Texas against the pipeline, on Crawford’s behalf.
“You could check off 20 different kinds of boxes, politically, professionally, temperamentally,” Crawford said. “We had Occupiers, Tea Partiers. This is about rights as a landowner.”
Farmers on the proposed route likely wouldn’t face these threats were it not for the 2005 case Kelo v. City of New London in which the Supreme Court, divided 5-4, ruled that eminent domain powers extend to the transfer of land from one private owner to another, if that action increases economic development.
The ruling outraged conservatives and libertarians. The effect of it today is to place people like Randy Thompson on an unfamiliar side of the divide between conservatives and environmentalists; and business and liberal political activists. He even testified this month against TransCanada as a witness for Henry Waxman’s minority on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“I’m a little ashamed to say that maybe if it hadn’t come across our land, I wouldn’t have gotten involved,” he told me. “I’ve gained a great deal of respect for people who do care about our environment I’ve become much more aware of environmental issues. I have to admire them for being concerned about our environment.”
“Republicans,” he said, by contrast, “could give a rats ass about the people out here.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.