Whether the Kinder Morgan company receives eminent domain to force easements of private land for the Palmetto Pipeline is now in the hands of Russell R. McMurry, Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner.
Friday was the DOT’s deadline for comments from the public. McMurry has until Tuesday to decide whether to grant Kinder Morgan a certificate of convenience and necessity.
“He has said before that he will make a decision by Tuesday, May 19,” Karlene Barron, Georgia DOT communications director, said Thursday.
However, she also confirmed a point raised by groups opposed to the pipeline, that if the commissioner did not make a decision, this would also amount to approval.
“The law says if there is no decision, that it is an automatic approval,” Barron acknowledged.
Kinder Morgan, a major Texas-based energy corporation, proposes to spend about $1 billion to build a 360-mile pipeline to carry gasoline, diesel fuel and fuel-grade ethanol from its existing pipeline at Belton, South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, with distribution terminals near Augusta and Savannah.
The pipeline would cross under the Savannah River near Augusta. Its proposed route then runs near the Savannah River through Screven and Effingham counties before crossing under the Ogeechee River in Bryan County. The proposed use of eminent domain to potentially force unwilling landowners to sell easements for a 50-foot-wide right of way has also fueled controversy.
Problems for project
Hundreds of people, by some counts more than 1,000, appeared in opposition to the project in a series of public meetings held by the company, and then at two DOT hearings, along the pipeline route in Georgia.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Nathan Deal also weighed in against the pipeline, although he has no official role in the decision.
During the very public debate and after assurances by the company that leaks are rare, a leak of more than 250,000 gallons of fuel was revealed to have occurred in December on Kinder Morgan’s existing Plantation Pipeline at Belton, South Carolina.
On the eve of the comment deadline, the Push Back the Pipeline Coalition released a 27-page position paper calling eminent domain “an extraordinary and dangerous power.” The report also describes the Belton leak, reiterates environmental concerns and cites other data to counter Kinder Morgan’s claims about the economic need for the project.
The Savannah, Ogeechee, Altamaha and Satilla Riverkeeper organizations, the Georgia Sierra Club and several other groups are part of the coalition.
Savannah Rivekeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said that Deal’s recent opposition to the project renews some of her faith in state government.
“I think that it’s a really good sign that he’s willing to listen to his constituents and make sound decisions,” Bonitatibus said. “I hope that translates into the DOT making the right decision.”
Her organization will continue its fight as Kinder Morgan seeks other permits in South Carolina and Georgia, whether or not McMurry approves the certificate, she said.
Bonitatibus said she also hopes to see changes in Georgia’s pipeline permitting and eminent domain laws beginning in 2016.
State law, she points out, provides for a review by a court if the certificate is denied, but provides no appeal for opponents if the certificate is approved.
In fact, the Georgia law on eminent domain for pipelines states: “The approval and issuance of the certificate of public convenience and necessity shall not be subject to review” and that a “certificate shall not be unreasonably withheld.”
Bonitatibus and others opposing the Palmetto project have also criticized the way the law grants the decision-making power to the DOT commissioner alone and provides for automatic approval in the absence of a decision.
Reporters asked Deal to explain his stance against the pipeline when he came to Georgia Southern University for a state budget-singing ceremony Monday.
“I listened to some of the constituents in our state that were very concerned with it,” Deal said, “and you have weigh overall merits and advantages to our state, and my opinion was that it did not show a whole lot of benefit for the state of Georgia in the process of building a pipeline and a lot of inconvenience to many landowners.”
A reporter asked Deal how he could support the Keystone XL Pipeline, a crude-oil pipeline that passes through other states, but oppose the Palmetto Pipeline. Deal is a Republican, and many Republicans have been critical of President Barack Obama for not approving the Keystone XL.
“Well, the Keystone Pipeline has a lot of public support for it,” Deal said, “as opposed to this one, in Georgia, which does not have a whole lot of public support that I’ve been able to determine.”
He said he also thinks that the Keystone XL Pipeline “adds to the economic security of our country.”
Bonitatibus said Kinder Morgan officials intend to appeal if McMurry denies the certificate and that this would put further steps on hold until the appeal is decided. An Environmental Protection Division permit would be the next step in the process.
Kinder Morgan statement
With McMurry’s decision pending, Kinder Morgan Corporate Communications Manager Melissa Ruiz did not confirm Thursday whether the company plans to appeal. But she supplied an earlier statement, issued after Deal revealed his opposition.
“We have not received official word from the Georgia DOT on our application, though we do expect to hear a decision by May 19,” the statement began.
“We will reserve comment until we obtain further information regarding the application, but we and our customers strongly believe that the Palmetto pipeline is good for consumers in the state of Georgia and we look forward to demonstrating that to the satisfaction of appropriate regulatory authorities,” Kinder Morgan’s statement concluded.
McMurry also issued a statement acknowledging Deal’s position but suggesting that the Georgia DOT commissioner will make his own decision after reviewing the received comments.
“We have communicated with various stakeholders who have expressed their views regarding Kinder Morgan’s application for Public Convenience and Necessity,” McMurray said in the emailed statement. “We acknowledge the Governor’s leadership and his position on this issue; however the Governor has not directed GDOT in this matter.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.