Farmer sows seeds of doubt over Keystone pipeline

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Texas farmer sows seeds of doubt over Keystone pipeline

Christy Hoppe
August 9, 2012
The Dallas Morning News
Mike Stone/REUTERS
Farmer Julia Trigg Crawford, who is battling with TransCanada over the trenching of her private property for the Keystone pipeline, is seen at her ranch in Sumner, Texas, early this year. (Feb. 17, 2012)

SUMNER, TEXAS—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 2,736 kilometres that would constitute the Keystone XL pipeline.

But as the 6-foot former basketball player 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,” Crawford said. “If you’re going to take it, you’re going to have to prove you can.”

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 flash point in the U.S. 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 neighbours, 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 oilsands crude 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 263-hectare 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.’ ”

The first papers arrived in 2008, a letter from TransCanada about buying an easement across the farm, bought 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 to $21,600 from $5,000.

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 common-carrier bona fides.”

It is too early in the process for Keystone 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.

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,

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.”

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