DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court said Friday that a crude oil pipeline running across Iowa was legally permitted to be built dashing the hopes of a group of farmer landowners who wanted the pipeline moved off their land and an environmental group that wanted it shut down.
A four-member majority of the court agreed with an Iowa court judge who in in February 2017 concluded the Iowa Utilities Board properly considered public benefits of the pipeline.
A group of 14 landowners and the environmental group Sierra Club of Iowa sued the board and the company that built the pipeline claiming the pipeline carrying crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois provides no benefit to Iowans and forced taking of land to build it is unlawful.
The decision will have far-reaching impact for landowners in Iowa because it opens the door for more developer driven condemnations, said Bill Hanigan, the attorney for the landowners.
“This sets a precedent for wealthy developers seizing Iowa farmland for private ventures that bring no measurable benefit to Iowans,” he said.
“We are devastated,” said Iowa landowner Dick Lamb, “how can a Texas company be allowed to seize my family farmland for their profit?”
The pipeline passes through 18 Iowa counties cutting diagonally across the state from the northwest to the southeast over about 340 miles. Construction began in June 2016 it began pumping oil in 2017.
The court concluded that the board’s weighing of benefits and costs supports its determination that the pipeline serves the public convenience and necessity adequately enough to satisfy Iowa law.
The court points out that Iowa consumes the equivalent of 85.2 million barrels of oil per year but produces no oil itself. Iowa ranks eighth in the country in per capita gasoline consumption, the court said.
Since the pipeline is expected to lead to longer-term reduced prices on products using crude oil, the court concluded these public benefits justify the board’s decision.
“The record indicates that it also provides public benefits in the form of cheaper and safer transportation of oil, which in a competitive marketplace results in lower prices for petroleum products,” the opinion says.
The farmers also claimed the forced taking of private land through eminent domain for a privately owned pipeline that provides no real benefit to Iowans is unconstitutional.
The majority of the court, however, said the use of eminent domain for a traditional public use such as an oil pipeline does not violate the Iowa Constitution or the United States Constitution simply because the pipeline passes through the state without taking on or letting off oil.
Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel disagreed with the majority saying the use of eminent domain in this case violates the Iowa Constitution. Wiggins wrote that the pipeline permit approval by the board did not comply with Iowa law because the Iowa public cannot use and does not derive a direct benefit from the project.
In a separate opinion Justice Christopher McDonald said he would dismiss the entire case because the pipeline in completed and oil has been running through it for two years.
“What’s done, is done. The case is moot,” he said.
Wally Taylor, the attorney for Sierra Club said he believes the court’s majority got it wrong and the environmental implications are significant.
“The real takeaway from this is it’s going to have to be a political solution. People who care about the environment, care about climate change and care about protecting polluted waters have to elect public officials who will pass protective laws that the court will have to enforce and can’t get around it,” he said.
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