The Penn East Pipeline – a joint project of six energy companies – is proposed to be built through Luzerne, Carbon, Northampton, and Bucks Counties in Pennsylvania. It is not the first, and, it seems, not the last.
In order to construct the pipeline, the builders need to be approved as a public utility. Even though the pipeline is built to generate wealth for the controlling energy companies, these approvals are routinely granted. Pipelines first negotiate privately with landowners, seeking easements over private property. But once they are approved as a public utiltity, they are empowered to seize private property through eminent domain. Often, resolute landowners not interested in negotiating easements are powerless to stop this legal process.
Now, the latest round of eminent domain battles for pipeline easements is being fought by Penn East. To date, it has filed 50 eminent domain lawsuits in federal court.
One thing that sets the Penn East legal battles apart from earlier ones is that the proposed terminus for the pipeline is across the Delaware River in Mercer County. Penn East is not yet fully approved for construction in New Jersey, and the New Jersey Attorney General’s office is asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to stay its “public utility” approval, arguing the construction plans are not consistent with federal law.
While these legal fights are continuing to develop, there is a chance for the facts to take a quixotic turn with the condemnation of private property for a pipeline that is not approved for construction. This has happened before, when the Sunoco/Energy Transfer Partners project Mariner East 2 began cutting trees on easements it had acquired through eminent domain before the pipeline’s construction was finally approved.
If history is any indication, the end of the eminent domain cases will not be the end of the story. In Lancaster, pipeline opponents have undertaken acts of civil disobedience, blocking construction equipment. We will watch how these fights play out, because one thing that is certain is that there are more to come.
By Chris Markos