ATLANTA – While there’s little doubt about legislator sentiment regarding a proposed petroleum pipeline in East Georgia, there is a question of what they may do next about it.
Plans by Texas-based Kinder Morgan for a $1 billion, 360-mile Palmetto Pipeline to carry gasoline, ethanol and diesel fuel from the Gulf Coast to South Carolina and then south along the Savannah River to Savannah and finally Jacksonville sparked outrage from environmentalists, competitors and the hundreds of property owners who fear their land will be seized without their agreement.
The concept became public near the end of this year’s legislative session, prompting lawmakers to pass a resolution sponsored by Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, urging the company to locate the pipe along existing road and utility rights of way wherever possible. Company officials haven’t released a detailed map of the route they want, but they have said most will indeed be along establish rights of way.
Burns’ resolution won unanimous support in the House and Senate, and since then, his Republican House colleagues elected him majority leader. That makes him a powerful force in the legislature.
Just days after Burns became the leader, Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry ruled that Kinder Morgan had not proved why there was a public necessity for the pipeline that would justify granting the company power to seize land from unwilling owners, a legal authority lawyers call eminent domain. The fact that Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters a week before what McMurry’s decision would be indicates that the governor is a likely ally of those wishing to stop the pipeline.
What Deal said, though, was that he thought the issue was one for the courts to decide. And Kinder Morgan attorneys quickly filed suit, setting the stage for a hearing Nov. 13 in Fulton County Superior Court.
That date makes it possible for Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams to rule before the General Assembly convenes in January, leaving an opening for lawmakers to act if they see the need.
Legislators say they’re deciding what their next move is.
“There was discussion back when this was hot and before the ruling about dealing with this in the legislature this year. That has kind of dropped off the radar,” said Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah.
For now. Burns will call House Republicans this fall to set the majority party’s agenda.
“When we get together to start to talk issues, I suspect this will be one of them,” Petrea said.
The Senate majority caucus, also controlled by Republicans, meets Oct. 12 to have a similar discussion.
Chair of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee that would consider pipeline-related measures, Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough, said he hasn’t heard anyone yet proposing legislation in his chamber either, but that isn’t unusual since some politicians like to fly under the radar to avoid alerting opponents.
On the House side, Rep. Don Parsons, R-Marietta, chair of the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications, also hasn’t heard of a bill in the works. He expects one, though.
“You’ve got people across the state affected by these things, and legislation will come up,” he said. “…. I don’t personally have anything on this or changing the process.”
On one hand, opponents of the Palmetto Pipeline are pleased with the outcome, notes Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club and other organizations.
“The existing GA law has proven effective in regulating this proposal so far, somewhat to the surprise of many observers from the conservation community,” he said. “We supported the initial bill years ago, from (the late Macon) Rep. Denmark Groover, and we opposed the attempt to weaken it that occurred a few sessions back. Seeing the bill actually function as designed has been a welcome experience, and we are following the appeal process with great interest.”
The success could actually be a reason it comes back before the legislature. That’s because residents of a distant part of Georgia trying to stop a different pipeline for another company see how the law worked against the Palmetto Pipeline and want to change it to halt the project headed for them.
The other project is the Sabal Trail Pipeline that is to cut across Southwest Georgia in order to transport natural gas. State law treats natural gas and petroleum pipeline construction differently by giving Georgia’s transportation and environmental agencies a say when the fuel is liquid but not when it’s gaseous.
Anyone familiar with Georgia’s legislature will recognize that a bill to strengthen the state’s power to stop natural-gas pipelines could wind up having the opposite result. As has happened often before, last-minute amendments that aren’t fully explained can get lawmakers to inadvertently vote to undo safeguards they favor.
A legislator or a lobbyist sympathetic to Kinder Morgan could slip a seemingly small procedural change into a bill that revives the Palmetto Pipeline by removing a legal hurdle.
Veteran lobbyists like Herring are always on the lookout for sneak attacks and remain skeptical of the motives for any legislation or amendment.
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