The Fight Against Eminent Domain Abuse

Fighting eminent domain collage

“It made me sick, it made me ill, to think that these people have the right to do this. To come in here and invade my property.”

Can you fight eminent domain?

So, first of all, what is eminent domain. (And that is how this is spelled, by the way, not "imminent domain" not "imonent domain" or any of those, (“imminent is a word and means about to happen” ). Eminent domain — eminent like prominent —  because it is the domain of the sovereign government to take your property against your will.

In oil and gas pipelines — especially those set up to export, as most in the Gulf Coast are now being retrofitted or built to do — the government’s awesome power to seize your land is being used by private companies because our laws mistakenly conflate these companies with utilities, and the government allows them to borrow that “eminent” power to force their project onto your land.

Eminent domain is the process by which a government takes private land for “public use.”  Under the 5th Amendment of the United States Constitution, land can be taken from an involuntary seller for “public use” so long as the landowner is provided with “just compensation.”  

Traditionally, eminent domain was used to take land for the construction of projects such as schools, hospitals and roads. These are projects that clearly fall within a common-sense definition of “public use.”  Unfortunately, over the years, courts have construed “public use” to mean just about anything.  This can include private, for-profit projects, such as pipelines.  Moreover, what constitutes “just compensation” is often a matter of heated disagreement.  When families have worked the same farm or ranch for generations, a narrow economic reading of the term “just compensation” cannot possibly address the myriad issues associated with the taking of a portion of their land and the possible destruction of much of what remains in the hands of the farmer or rancher.  Property owners often have very strong cultural, economic and emotional ties to their land.  For many of them, unless they are forced to part with their land, they will refuse to sell it.

Today, there is an epidemic of pipeline companies attempting to take land from property owners who don’t want to sell their land.  This is due in large part to judicial decisions that have severely limited the rights of property owners under the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution.  These questionable decisions construing the meaning of the 5th Amendment can be constrained through legislative action at the state and federal level.  In fact, the state legislatures in Georgia and South Carolina have already taken action to limit the use of eminent domain to build an oil pipeline that would have run through those states.  These legislative actions resulted in cancellation of that pipeline. In order to protect property owners it is important for other states to take similar action regarding oil pipelines and for the US Congress to take action preventing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from continuing to approve eminent domain takings by just about every gas pipeline company that asks for its approval.