04 August 2012

Austin Bureau
Dallas Morning News

Julia Trigg Crawford
Lara Solt/DMN Staff Photographer
Julia Trigg Crawford’s legal fight against TransCanada Corp. — which wants to run its $12 billion pipeline beneath her
Lamar County pasture — pits two Republican values against each other: energy independence and property rights.

SUMNER — The line across Julia Trigg Crawford’s family farm is practically nothing — a rivet in a skyscraper, a pebble on the highway, just four football fields out of the 1,700 miles that would constitute the Keystone XL pipeline.

But as the 6-foot former Lady Aggie basketball standout spreads her arms marking the planned route across her field of coastal grass, she presents a formidable obstacle for pipeline companies.

"The line in the sand for my family is that we don"t believe a foreign company building a pipeline to put money in their pockets can take a Texan’s land. If you"re going to take it, you"re going to have to prove you can," Crawford said.

Talking to her, it’s tempting to forget the million-dollar campaigns, top lobbyists and public outcry and wonder if this farmer, scraping together a few thousand dollars for a lawyer and experts, is someone who can tie a knot in a pipeline that’s a flashpoint in the presidential campaign.

What she has in her blue-jeans pocket is a recent Texas Supreme Court decision that has raised a real question about whether the multinational TransCanada Corp. has the right to run its $12 billion pipeline beneath her pasture.

Crawford’s cause has drawn in neighbors, media, lawmakers, cattle raisers, farm associations, environmentalists and tea party adherents — not to mention oil and gas lawyers. She considers herself "politically agnostic," even while her case drives a stake between two priorities dear to Texas" Republican leaders: energy production and property rights.

TransCanada said it needs her field to ship diluted bitumen — a chemical mixture that breaks tar sands oil into a thick goo — for a huge venture that will create jobs and serve consumers.

Crawford says her family should control who and what crosses their 650-acre Lamar County farm. And the volatility of the mixture in a high-pressure pipeline leaves her sleepless.

To her supporters, the tale has a broader, familiar Texas ring: a ragtag band of fighters greatly outnumbered, surrounded by an army of foreign interests, takes a stand on a patch of ground, drawing lines in the sand in a fight for independence.

"The state of Texas leaves it to farmers like me to fend for themselves when the wolves of condemnation knock at the door," she told a legislative panel recently. ‘since no state entity wants to take the responsibility, it’s left me to ask, ‘Show me your papers.""

Easement offer

The first papers arrived in 2008, a letter from TransCanada about purchasing an easement across the farm, purchased by the family in 1948. Crawford and her family had received similar requests from two other pipeline companies but had managed to talk them into changing their routes.

The gently sloping property two hours northeast of Dallas is bound on the north by the Red River. From her living room picture window, Crawford can see just beyond her corn stalks to a grove of bois d"arc trees that mark the Oklahoma border. On the west are Caddo Indian burial grounds, and hints of those sacred vaults rise
in several mounds across the Crawford farm.

The burial sites are legally protected, one reason why other pipeline companies have willingly altered their routes.

But Crawford said there didn"t seem to be room for discussion with TransCanada. "They said, ‘No. We"re coming across.’"

In August 2011, the negotiations were over. The Crawfords were given notice to sign the final easement offer, which had grown from $5,000 to $21,600.

Crawford said she tried to contact TransCanada representatives, but they went into what she called "radio silence." In October, she received legal notice that her property had been condemned and the easement awarded to TransCanada.

There had been a hearing before a judge, but in Texas, landowners aren"t invited. They only have the right to appeal the price offered for the land.

So, Crawford filed suit. But the heart of her legal argument isn"t about money. It’s about whether the Keystone pipeline qualifies as a "common carrier" in Texas, because only common carriers have authority to take private property for the public good.

Common carriers, such as pipelines, utilities and railroads, might be privately owned but they must provide access for other companies to move their products at a set and publicly advertised rate. They cannot be for the use of a single private company.

That, Crawford says, is exactly the problem with the Keystone pipeline. Her lawsuit contends it is solely for the benefit of TransCanada, which hasn"t produced third-party contracts, established rates for other companies and also falls short under other state requirements delineated for common carriers.

It might have appeared to be a long-shot legal argument. But last year, the state Supreme Court ruled in a similar case.

To become a common carrier pipeline in Texas, a company files a form with the Railroad Commission and checks the proper box. The Railroad Commission — which, despite its name, regulates oil and gas production — does not verify qualifications. It has never denied such a permit, according to court documents. "The Railroad Commission has no authority to determine common carrier status. We accept what the operator represents on the form," said the agency’s spokeswoman, Ramona Nye.

The justices, all Republicans, appeared dumbfounded that Texas allows companies to self-identify as common carriers and then use that designation to take property along their path.

"Private property cannot be imperiled with such nonchalance, via an irrefutable presumption created by checking a certain box on a one-page government form. Our Constitution demands far more," their unanimous opinion states.

If a landowner challenges a pipeline, the court ruled, the onus falls on the company to "establish its commoncarrier bona fides."

Provide a public good?

It is too early in the process for Keystone — or the Gulf Coast Project, as the southern segment from Cushing, Okla., to oil refineries in Nederland has been re-dubbed — to have contracts with third-party oil companies to transport their crude, said TransCanada spokesman David Dodson.

There are currently no interconnects in the design that would provide access to the pipeline for other companies, Dodson said, but "the oil can get on at other places."

The pipeline will obviously provide a public good by moving large amounts of oil into the marketplace, Dodson said. "We"re an open-access transporter, a common carrier," he said.

Plano attorney Wendi Hammond, representing the Crawford farm, likened the pipeline to the now-defunct Trans-Texas Corridor, which was upended over public outrage that a Spanish company was trying to take large swaths of private land to build a giant tollway.

"People don"t like toll roads necessarily, but everybody understood that anybody could use that tollway if they wanted," Hammond said. "Here, we have something like a toll road where the entry point is in Oklahoma and the only exit point is at a Texas port for loading on a ship."

Whether Crawford can challenge TransCanada’s status as a common carrier is slated to be discussed for the first time Friday, in a preliminary hearing in her condemnation suit.

In January, President Barack Obama denied a permit to TransCanada to build the northern segment of the pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Cushing, saying the environmental ramifications required more study. So TransCanada has been working on the lower half, which doesn"t require presidential permission.

The company has secured all 1,452 tracts of land it needed in Texas, Dodson said.

Condemnation was employed in at least 100 cases, based on records in 14 county clerk offices compiled by Debra Medina, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate and founder of We Texans — a Libertarian-tea party group intent on private property rights.

Dodson did not dispute the number of condemnations, but said TransCanada "treats landowner relations … confidentially."

Crawford said she found 11 other landowners in Lamar County that had property condemned, but they have since settled. "We"re the last ones standing," she said.

Material concerns

Much of her concern is the type of material TransCanada intends to send through the pipe. Diluted bitumen has the consistency of roof tar. The pipeline must operate under heavy pressure to move the sludge. A sister pipeline suffered more than a dozen spills in its first year, she pointed out. Dodson said those problems resulted from faulty valves — not the pipeline itself — and the problems have been corrected. Still, Crawford said, most landowners who agreed to easements were only told it was an oil pipeline. "If they had told the landowners that it"ll be sludge-like peanut butter through a pipe with high chemical levels that will hit 150 degrees and it will kill vegetation above it, I"m sure a lot of people wouldn"t have signed it," Crawford said.

Dodson said TransCanada has 30,000 miles of pipelines in North America and knows how to operate safely. "We are not different from other pipelines that transport heavy crude," he said.

The company has also agreed to 57 additional conditions demanded by the U.S. State Department, ‘so this will be built to the highest standards of any pipeline in history," he said.

To Medina, the argument over the type of pipeline is ancillary to the real question: Who has the right to take someone’s land against their will?

"The echo chamber is so dominated on the right at the federal level by energy independence and the need for the approval of this project," she said, while on the left, Democrats shout about the environment. ‘so, like so many issues, it’s become this partisan divide. You know: Don"t confuse us with the facts," Medina said.

‘A quiet life’

Crawford, 53, returned to run the family farm in 2010 after a career as a corporate headhunter. "I thought I was coming home to the farm for a quiet life," she said with an ironic grin. "I now dream about horizontal directional drilling."

Her sister, brother and father — a retired veterinarian who taught at Texas A&M — all back her in this fight that they have little money to mount. She has launched a website, www.standwithjulia.com.

She admitted that she doesn"t know if she can win the fight. Absent a court order, TransCanada could start laying pipe across her field at any time. She hasn"t taken the company’s money, but it now owns the easement.

Crawford said she simply wants her daughter to "have a place to come home to," and for that, "I will use every resource I have."

"You learn even if you"re the last-seeded team going against the national champions, you still suit up, even if you"re going to get the snot kicked out of you," she said.

"I need to be able to say to myself that I did all I could."

Follow Christy Hoppe on Twitter at @christyhoppe.

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