Virginia Lawsuit Challenges Eminent Domain for Oil Pipelines

Eminent domain, in which government agencies seize land for the public good, tends to be a controversial subject. After all, “public good” can be interpreted very loosely.

For example, developers have successfully argued that they will promote job growth, opportunities and affordable housing with projects involving seized land. But in Virginia, some property owners are testing the limits of eminent domain.

In a lawsuit filed in district court, the property owners allege that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is overstepping its bounds in allowing the Mountain Valley Pipeline to seize property along its proposed route. The property owners question how being forced to hand over their property to a private, for-profit company building an oil pipeline benefits the public interest.

They’re also raising environmental questions, noting that the pipeline doesn’t just impact property owners but also those living in affected watersheds and the blast zone of potential explosions. Given the growing list of incidents involving leaks, explosions and other issues, this is a valid concern — a pipeline doesn’t just affect the landscape and habitat it slices through, but also the surrounding area.

Their argument: The FERC is violating constitutional law and property rights, and it must stop. Property owners claim the use of eminent domain in this case is “overly broad,” running contrary to the public interest, as well as centuries of legislation and caselaw.

While the Mountain Valley Pipeline might not be as infamous as the Dakota Access Pipeline or the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it’s controversial, and residents have been working hard to oppose it.

This case highlights the use of a new legal strategy to challenge powerful oil companies, but it also underscores the fact that pipelines crisscross much of America. And in many cases, property owners struggle to defend their land and the environment from oil companies.

But this is not the only place where the FERC is using eminent domain, or “subdelegating” the process to another entity. If the plaintiffs succeed, the court case will force the oil company to prove that it’s using eminent domain fairly in an appeal — and if it fails to do so, the subsequent judgment could establish the start of tougher standards for deciding when and where people can be forced to sacrifice their property on demand.

For people across the country facing similar situations — trying to hold on to land with cultural, historic, personal or ecological value — the outcome of this case could be an important factor in how they plan their own resistance to unwanted oil pipelines. The implications may stretch beyond oil pipelines, as well — there are other cases of eminent domain in the US that could be subject to challenge if this case is successful, forcing a discussion on what “public good” means.

Litigation can be a useful tool for activism, one reason it’s used by environmental organizations, as well as individual activists. And when Congress and the executive branch are hostile to environmental concerns, this approach is particularly key — suits like this one can step up to defend the environment when lawmakers and officials refuse to do so.