Oil companies banned from seizing property for pipelines in South Carolina

A stake marked the route last year of a proposed petroleum pipeline through South Carolina. This swamp is in Aiken County.
A stake marked the route last year of a proposed petroleum pipeline through South Carolina. This swamp is in Aiken County.

COLUMBIA, SC Oil companies that want to lay pipelines through South Carolina will have to do so without seizing people’s land, according to legislation approved this week by state lawmakers.

Responding to concerns that surfaced over a pipeline project last year, the state House of Representatives voted 89-3 Wednesday night for the legislation that supporters say will protect property rights. The Senate, which already had voted for a version of the measure, signed off on the legislation Thursday and sent the bill to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.

Haley’s office had no immediate comment on whether she would sign or veto the legislation.

The measure says private, for-profit oil pipeline companies won’t be allowed to condemn land during the next three years. Over that time, lawmakers will study the issue and decide whether to continue the ban.

“It’s a landmark decision and affirmation in the state of South Carolina that we won’t allow unregulated pipeline companies to abuse their authority,’’ said Benton Wislinski, a lobbyist for the state Sierra Club and the Savannah Riverkeeper organization, both of which supported the legislation.

The Legislature’s effort follows an uproar over the Kinder Morgan company’s plan to run a petroleum pipeline from northwest South Carolina to north Florida. The $1 billion project would have covered 360 miles, beginning near Belton and extending through six South Carolina counties. The pipe would have entered Georgia below Augusta.

Kinder Morgan suspended plans in March after more than a year of complaints from conservationists about the potential environmental impact and from landowners concerned about having their land condemned by the energy company.

Kinder Morgan, one of the nation’s major pipeline and energy companies, has said it did not want to condemn anyone’s land. The company has said it preferred to strike sales agreements with landowners without going through condemnation proceedings. The company, headquartered in Texas, owns an interest or operates about 84,000 miles of pipelines nationwide.

A company spokesperson was not immediately available Thursday.

Those backing the legislation approved this week say it will safeguard against future attempts by Kinder Morgan or other companies to condemn land for possible oil pipelines in South Carolina. The Georgia Legislature passed a similar bill earlier this year.

The dispute in both states has focused on the use of “eminent domain,’’ the right of governments to condemn land if the property is needed for a public use, such as a new freeway. It is used when landowners refuse to voluntarily sell their property. In condemning and taking land, the government must pay property owners what it considers a fair price.

But in this case, Kinder Morgan is a for-profit company – and South Carolina law is murky about whether such a company has the right to condemn property for a petroleum pipeline project. Unlike oil pipes, natural gas pipelines are regulated more tightly and must undergo a federal review before gaining approval. Natural gas lines are not included in the legislation approved Wednesday.

Rep. Bill Hixon, an Aiken County Republican who supported the three-year ban, said he’s received plenty of calls about the need to stop unregulated, private companies from condemning land. The three-year ban on condemnation will give lawmakers time to consider whether to make it permanent, he said.

“Anything that would better protect people’s private property rights is a good thing,’’ Hixon said Thursday. “Kinder Morgan probably did us a favor by alerting us to what is going on and giving us a chance to sit back and look at our laws.’’