Appellate Court, Common Carrier, Common Carrier Test, common-carrier status, Denbury, Denbury Green Pipeline, landowner rights, Landowners, Opinion, politics, property rights, Public Benefit, Public Use, supreme court of texas, Texas, texas property rights, Texas Rice Land Partners, Third Party Contract
According to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 17 of the Texas Constitution, applications of the eminent-domain power must be for public use. Jurisdictions have developed legal and administrative structures which allow private interests limited uses of the power. For Texas pipelines, the granting of eminent-domain authority can only take place when a project fulfills certain requirements. Chief among these is the ability to prove that the pipeline has a public use, meaning it is not being built exclusively for and used only by the entity condemning the land. Statewide, the common-carrier definition, and the derivative test determining whether the definition can describe a given pipeline, is used to establish and enforce the public use requirement.
In the recently decided Denbury Green Pipeline – Texas, LLC v. Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd., the Texas Supreme Court clarified the access conditions for common-carrier status. In 2015, an appellate court established two additional barriers to common-carrier status. First, it held that a pipeline’s common carrier status must result from an examination of the intent of the constructing party to use the pipeline for public benefit at the onset of the project’s contemplation. Second, the pipeline’s use must serve a “substantial” public interest. The Supreme Court decision reversed these two holdings, the first on the grounds that it misinterpreted case law, and the second because it proceeded beyond the limits of precedent. The Supreme Court also held that Denbury’s post-construction product transportation contracts with third parties, and the fact that certain third parties would retain product title, was sufficient to evidence public use and therefore common-carrier status after the pipeline is built. This opinion is a significant blow to Texas landowner rights.
172nd District Court, common-carrier status, Condemnation, denbury green, Denbury Green Pipeline, Eminent Domain, Justin Hodge, Ninth District Court of Appeals, RRC, T-4 Permit, Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Rice Partners
Despite the drop in oil prices, the tug-of-war between landowners and the Denbury Green pipeline company continues to play out in court in the landmark case that defined common-carrier status in Texas.
Texas Rice Partners, Ltd. v. Denbury Green Pipeline, involving Denbury’s right to invoke eminent domain to obtain the properties of Texas Rice Land Partners, Ltd., a consortium of rice farmers, was ruled in the pipeline company’s favor by both the 172nd District Court and the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals in Beaumont, Texas, in 2011. These courts claimed that Denbury was indeed a common carrier, and, therefore, could use eminent domain to obtain land to build its pipeline.
The Texas Supreme Court, however, reversed those rulings, arguing that Denbury’s classification as a common carrier rested too heavily on a pipeline company simply checking a box on a one-page document for the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) and that the RRC’s findings could not reliably and conclusively determine a company’s power to use eminent domain.
The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the district court late 2011, and the district court again ruled in favor of Denbury’s common carrier status in 2014. The case continued again to the appellate court in Beaumont, which heard oral arguments for the case last month. Denbury built the pipeline during this legal back-and-forth, but the landowners hope the appellate court will send the case back to the Supreme Court as the case has yet to be heard by a jury and that Denbury’s intent to serve as a common carrier at the time of condemnation has not been established (Read more here).
While the court of appeals has not yet ruled on this matter, the RRC announced new regulations for granting a T-4 permit – required for property condemnation by pipeline companies – effective March 2015 in an effort to better regulate this process. The new regulations will ask for more substantial information and supporting documentation from companies applying for the permit and enforce a new timeline for the application process (Read more about the new regulations here).
As laws and precedent for private companies to invoke eminent domain continue to change, landowners should try to stay up-to-date to better protect their property rights. In fact, we all should. The laws are changing quickly, and the tug-of-war between pipeline companies and landowners will impact us all.
Justin Hodge is a law partner in Houston, Texas. He focuses on eminent domain, condemnation and landowner defense. For more information, please see http://www.jmehlaw.com.
Coauthored by Justin Hodge and Ayla Syed.