The Texas Railroad Commission has approved new rules modifying what pipeline operators must do to become common carriers and possibly get the power to condemn land for their projects.
The agency, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, has been criticized as rubber-stamping applications by companies that want to lay pipelines that carry natural gas, hazardous materials and other substances.
Under the new guidelines, companies must provide additional information about their projects, along with sworn statements that the information is accurate. Applicants must also acknowledge the eminent domain provisions in the Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights.
But the agency stressed that a common-carrier permit does not authorize a pipeline operator to exercise eminent domain powers to buy land. That determination, it said, must ultimately be made by the courts.
Railroad Commission Chairwoman Christi Craddick said pipelines are fundamental to the transport of oil and gas. But she said the rules adopted Tuesday show that the agency recognizes that permitting must occur in a “vibrant, transparent” process.
The new rules take effect March 1.
Attorneys and groups like the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which has pushed for more stringent rules, said they are still studying what has been adopted.
Zach Brady, a Lubbock attorney who represents individuals in eminent domain disputes, said he appreciates that the commission made it clear that landowners still have the right to challenge eminent domain proceedings at the courthouse. But he said the commission could have stated on its forms that it doesn’t have the authority to decide whether a pipeline operator has the power of eminent domain.
“They did not answer the crucial question,” Brady said. “I’m a West Texas boy and a believer it should be straightforward.”
Luke Ellis, an Austin attorney, also said the agency could have given landowners some say in the pipeline’s route — or made pipeline operators do more to prove that their project benefits the general public. He wouldn’t even describe the new rules as a step in the right direction.
“It is a slight lean in the right direction … a very minimal lean in the right direction,” he said.
Previously, if a company wanted a pipeline permit, it simply submitted a one-page form and put an “X” in the “common carrier” box. A different box was checked to say whether another company could use the pipeline, meaning that it is for the public’s common good.
Once a company filled out the paperwork and selected the pipeline’s path, it would start the project and possibly use eminent domain authority granted to it by the Natural Resources Code to condemn property. Landowners opposing the project had to go to court.
Under the new rules, applications must have additional information, including requested classification and purpose of the pipeline as a common carrier, a gas utility or a private line operator. The commission staff will have up to 45 days to review the permit.
The permit can be revoked if the agency finds that the pipeline is not being operated in accordance with state laws and commission regulations.