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Pennsylvania Supreme Court decides eminent domain case

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that a state law that allows for the seizure of private lands by companies for certain natural gas projects is unconstitutional. The ruling was unanimous and may have a significant impact on one of the biggest proposed pipelines in the state. The original rule from 2012 permitted any company the authority to take private land for the purposes of storing natural gas underground using the eminent domain process.

In reaching the decision, the court found that the rule allows private companies to take land in a manner that is unconstitutional with no direct or obvious benefit to the citizens of Pennsylvania. Oil and gas companies argued the takings provide a benefit by providing jobs but the court did not agree. The court was concerned that was not the primary reason for the rule.

The current case addressed storage of natural gas underground but could have implications for the way eminent domain is applied to a proposed pipeline that would be one of the biggest in the state. The $2.5 billion project would make Pennsylvania the East Coast hub for the distribution of natural gas liquids. It is an expansion of a current pipeline. The original line is 300 miles but the proposed pipeline will have 4 times the capacity. Pennsylvania is the second largest producer of natural gas.

At least a dozen gas-related pipelines, of which many are planned to cross private land, have been proposed by companies. Landowners have brought lawsuits challenging the use of eminent domain by companies related to natural gas storage and pipelines. Under Pennsylvania law, land may only be taken through eminent domain if it is for a public use. Some gas pipelines fall under state jurisdiction and some under federal jurisdiction.

It is unclear how pipelines will be viewed by the Supreme Court while the current case addressed natural gas storage. Landowners who have brought eminent domain claims concerning gas pipelines have not fared as well with the state appeals court so far. Eminent domain concerns are significant for many property owners because of the significant impact they have on property rights which is why it is important for landowners impacted by eminent domain to be familiar with the laws and protections available to them.

Source: Inside Climate News, "Pennsylvania Ruling on Eminent Domain Puts Contentious Pipeline Project on Alert," Zahra Hirji, Oct. 18, 2016

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