Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Friends and foes of Constitution Pipeline await appeals court ruling

.Megan Holleran stands by a sign on her family's land. The Hollerans lost their court battle to save their maple trees from eminent domain seizure. The trees are being cut to make way for the new Constitution Pipeline.

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact PA

.Megan Holleran stands by a sign on her family's land. The Hollerans lost their court battle to save their maple trees from eminent domain seizure. The trees were cut to make way for the proposed Constitution Pipeline.

Nine months after heavily armed federal marshals patrolled a tree-cutting operation for the proposed Constitution Pipeline on a northeast Pennsylvania maple tree farm, the pipeline’s builders and its critics are awaiting a court ruling that may determine whether the project can proceed.

The Williams Companies is appealing a decision by New York State that denied a water-quality permit for the 124-mile natural gas pipeline from Susquehanna County, PA to Schoharie County, NY, halting the project even after trees had been cut on some parcels of land along the Pennsylvania portion of the route.

The trees were cut to make way for the pipeline on several properties including a 23-acre Susquehanna County lot owned by the Holleran family which became a symbol of resistance to the project after men with chainsaws felled several acres of maple trees on March 1, 2016, while marshals carrying semiautomatic rifles kept protesters away.

The incident fueled opposition to the project and highlighted wider concern about the pipeline industry’s use of eminent domain to seize private land from owners such as the Hollerans who have refused corporate offers of compensation.

Now, both sides await a ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals which is hearing the Williams case against the permit denial in April by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation which said the pipeline plan failed to meet its water-quality standards.

The decision was hailed by critics but came too late for the trees from which the Hollerans harvested maple sap to make syrup.

Williams, which heads a consortium of four companies, says it is determined to pursue the project.

“The company remains steadfastly committed to the project and is optimistic the Court will announce its decision in 2017,” company spokesman Christopher Stockton wrote in an email. “In light of the pending legal challenges, the project’s in-service date is targeted as early in the second half of 2018, which assumes that the legal challenge process is satisfactorily and promptly concluded.”

An armed U.S. marshall on his way to accompany two tree cutters at the Holleran property on Tuesday, March 1 2016.

Jon Hurdle / StateImpact PA

An armed U.S. marshall on his way to accompany two tree cutters at the Holleran property on Tuesday, March 1 2016.

If it is built, the pipeline would carry enough gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale to fuel about 3 million homes, the company says.

Megan Holleran, whose family bought the New Milford Township property in the 1950s, said the family is in “limbo” because it has been unable to find a lawyer and does not know when or whether it will have a federal court hearing to seek compensation for the loss of its trees.

“We’re in a unique position since the construction of the pipeline is stalled and uncertain,” Holleran wrote in an email. “We haven’t had our compensation hearing and have no idea when it will (if ever) be scheduled.”

She also said the family can’t find an appraiser to assess the value of damage done to the land “since they all have a conflict of interest due to work with the gas industry.”

Holleran said the only appraisal was done before a federal judge granted Williams eminent domain, and that the appraiser at the time calculated a “reasonable compensation” figure based on an assessment that classified the land as “unused rural space.”

As a result, the land’s stated value does not reflect the loss of income from the maple trees, the loss of usable land for future construction, and the fact that the pipeline would be in the back yard of a house on the property, Holleran said.

She said the family does not have a specific compensation sum in mind but is just seeking an accurate assessment of damages from the tree cutting.

Despite the ongoing battle with Williams, Holleran said the company has been “surprisingly accommodating” since the project was halted. The company has developed an alternate plan that would use existing roads to come on to the property in order to clear the felled trees, she said.

Whoever loses at the Second Circuit is likely to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, predicted Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that advises landowners on how to make informed decisions on pipeline projects.

Farrell said New York State is unlikely to back down on the issue. “They’ve worked hard and intelligently, with factually based assessments to back up the denial of permits,” she said.

The case could be a bellwether for both sides, she said, but its influence may depend on whether the incoming Trump administration seeks to promote fossil fuels by boosting the pipeline industry.

“I’m not sure we’ll see much of anything happening with oil and gas, even on the state level, until after the administration is sworn in,” Farrell said.

Comments

  • Wayne

    “If it is built, the pipeline would carry enough gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale to fuel about 3 million homes, the company says.” This raises obvious questions about the value the added gas would provide, the need (or not) for the gas, vs. the cost and diminished quality of life imposed upon the land/home owners along the way, and the impacts on the planet which is already suffering from fossil fuel burning.
    Money spent on new infrastructure for the burning of a fossil fuel is a waste. The money should be spent on new infrastructure that enables non polluting forms of energy. We need to move into the 21st Century, as opposed to continuing the philosophy and practices of the 19th.

    • CB

      “Money spent on new infrastructure for the burning of a fossil fuel is a waste. The money should be spent on new infrastructure that enables non polluting forms of energy.”

      I agree with that 100%.

      I would caution against some of the arguments being made against pipelines, however.

      Eminent domain can be a critical tool in establishing a renewable energy system. Long-haul electrical transmission can minimise the need for energy storage and help transport solar and wind energy from the places where it’s produced to the places where it’s needed.

      Without being able to secure a right of way to build this transmission infrastructure, setting up a sustainable system will be much harder.

      These issues are not always as black and white as they might first appear…

  • Nick Sinclair

    Natural gas is as clean a fuel as we have. Much cleaner than coal and easier to transport than oil, as well as safer. I’ve lived close to a major pipeline for over 30 yrs and never seen any issues. No reasonable person would oppose this project based on facts instead of emotion IMO.

    • Rich Garella
      • Wayne

        Thanks for posting that link Mr. Garella.

      • Nick Sinclair

        Rich, unpleasant things do happen. None are presently completely accident free. Less disruptions occur with natural gas than many other fuels.

    • Wayne

      Mr. Sinclair, see Rich Garella’s post and link. Lots of pipelines have not exploded yet, and many have. That point is irrelevant. As for cleaner than coal or oil, you know you’re in the wrong ball park when Jim Willis is your up voter. We are not talking about the blue flame of burning gas, we are referring to shale gas extraction via fracking with unburned methane escaping everywhere during extraction, transport and and then burning on top of that. No fossil fuel is clean or safe. We have to live with a transition, but we need to move as quickly away as possible, not invest and build new infrastructure.

      • Nick Sinclair

        Wayne, many of your points are probably valid, however we are dealing in the present, which favors natural gas above the other current options. Life itself isn’t 100% safe either, accidents do happen.

  • delcogal

    We CAN’T build new fracking infrastructure if we want a planet left for our children or grandchildren . Building new fracking infrastructure also ensures the people of PA and beyond continue to have the filthy process continue in their states. If we keep saying this is what we have now and continue with fracking until the supply is depleted it will be too late. New York State spoke. I would certainly hope the three Second Circuit Court judges would honor the state’s decision that this pipeline would be a detriment to the many waterways ( and more) it was to cross.

    • iamhe

      It is my understanding, All the chemicals pumped into the ground for fracking are endocrine disrupters…….. think dead frogs, impotent men with extended bellies, and enlarged breasts…. endocrine disrupters!

      solar is better

  • iamhe

    Corporations run our government via the GOP sell outs..

  • http://flippetyfloppety.blogspot.com Karen Orlando

    “The incident fueled opposition to the project” claims reporter Jon Hurdle, referring to the felling of trees on the Holleran property. In reality opposition to the Constitution pipeline including protests, had been ongoing for years.

    Jon Hurdle should remember that he also wrote about activists and environmentalists claiming the proposed Port Ambrose LNG import project was secretly or likely to be for export and that was a conspiracy theory cooked up by activists.

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