Can a compromise be reached over petroleum pipelines in Georgia?

A bill that would rewrite the rules for building petroleum pipelines in Georgia will be up for a vote Friday in the state Senate, as lawmakers try to craft a compromise after controversy forced a temporary moratorium last year.

Senate Bill 191, sponsored by state Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-McDonough, would set new limits on the ability of pipeline companies to use eminent domain — an involuntary seizure — for surveying and acquiring private land.

Under the proposal, companies would not be able to use eminent domain unless they went through a two-step process. That would include approval for a “certificate of need” from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, as well as a permit from the state’s Environmental Protection Division. The Georgia Department of Transportation, which has had the authority to issue certificates of need, would be removed from the process altogether.

The potential changes to the state’s existing Pipeline Act, passed in 1995, come after a joint legislative commission met across the state last year seeking residents’ thoughts on how to allow petroleum distribution while also respecting safety and property rights.

"We heard about egregious use of eminent domain" by companies in the past, said Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee Chairman Frank Ginn, R- Danielsville, who was part of the commission and has helped shepherd the bill through the chamber.

The proposed rules, he said, aim to curb abuses but not to the point that they drive the companies away from Georgia.

The companies say pipelines are a safer way to transfer petroleum products over other methods, such as trucking and shipping. But environmental and property advocates say they worry about leaks and a lack of oversight.

Getting advocates for stricter controls on the companies to agree with the companies themselves, however, has proved to be tough.

Under the bill, companies not seeking to use eminent domain would still have to get a permit from state environmental officials under a regulatory review that could last up to 180 days.

Major pipeline operators in Georgia — including energy giant Kinder Morgan, Colonial Pipeline and Colonial Oil — generally support the bill’s current version, but they still want some changes, including a reduction in the review period.

“We’d like 120 days,” said Hunter Hopkins, the executive director of the Georgia Petroleum Council.

Environmental advocates, meanwhile, don’t like that lawmakers have dropped a provision from the bill that would have banned new pipelines within 50 miles of saltwater marshes along the coast.

They also don’t believe the decision over whether to allow a company to use eminent domain should be in the hands of an agency whose leader is appointed. Elected officials, they say, are more easily held accountable to the public.

“We are certainly glad to see the petroleum pipeline bill moving forward at last, but the provision that the decision of whether or not the power of eminent domain is used for these pipelines needs to be in the hands of an elected, not an appointed, official,” said Neill Herring, a longtime lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

“A judge of the Superior Court where the condemnation is proposed,” Herring added, “is a much better official to make that very important decision.”

The current moratorium is set to end June 30. Lawmakers agreed to it last year after public outcry over a proposal to build a 210-mile-long petroleum pipeline along the Savannah River and coastal Georgia. The decision led Kinder Morgan to suspend work on what was known as the Palmetto Pipeline, a $1 billion project that would have run from South Carolina to Florida.

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