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Landowners And Oil & Gas Industry Spar Over Eminent Domain Reform In House Committee

The push for eminent domain reform in the Texas Legislature comes at a time when the state’s booming oil and gas industry demands more and more pipeline capacity, often spurring backlash from landowners. (Travis Bubenik / Marfa Public Radio)

By Sally Beauvais

Landowners and agricultural groups clashed with oil & gas industry representatives at the State Capitol on Thursday over a piece of legislation that would reform the state’s eminent domain laws.

Senate Bill 421, authored by Republican Senator Lois Kolkhorst, calls for increased protections for landowners -- including public hearings, standardized easement terms, and safeguards from lowball offers -- when companies building roads, pipelines and other infrastructural projects that the government considers to be for the public good use eminent domain to force them to sell their property.

The bill’s advocates say it would ensure a more transparent and fair process for property owners when private companies seize their land.

Texas Farm Bureau President Russell Boening testified on behalf of the legislation in front of the House Land & Resource Management Committee.

"We understand the need for eminent domain, but we just want a fair process and just compensation guaranteed by the constitution," Boening said.

Republican Representative DeWayne Burns, who authored companion legislation in the House, told committee members that Texas property owners need assurance the eminent domain process will be "respectful of their property rights when forced to give their land up for public use."

"The status quo is failing them," Burns added.

Opponents to the bill say eminent domain is used as a last resort in the majority of infrastructure projects in Texas. The legislation comes at a time when the state’s booming oil and gas industry can’t build pipelines quickly enough to move record-high volumes of product to market.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, filed lawsuits to condemn land for the project in Brewster and Presidio Counties in 2016 –- invoking its power of eminent domain.

Dave Conover -- Vice President of Government Relations and Communications at Houston-based Kinder Morgan -- told committee members the bill, as it’s currently written, could slow down that process.

"As you work through the legislative process, please keep in mind that this debate isn’t about pipelines versus landowners. It’s about preventing private stonewalling from killing public benefits," Conover said.

Conover added that while he's not necessarily against eminent domain reform, he believes certain details in the bill could lead to prolonged litigation.

House Bill 421 has already passed through the Texas Senate. A similar measure died in the House during the 2017 Legislative Session.

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.