Judge denies east Georgia Palmetto pipeline

Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan’s plans to lay 210 miles of petroleum pipes across East Georgia were thwarted Tuesday when a Fulton County judge ruled the Texas company can’t use eminent domain to take property from unwilling landowners.

Superior Court Judge Kimberly Adams upheld a Georgia agency's surprising May 2015 decision denying Kinder Morgan a certificate of "public convenience and necessity," a permit which allows the pipeline builder to secure its route. Adams, in her ruling, said the decision by Georgia's transportation commissioner is "supported by substantial evidence and must be affirmed."

Gov. Nathan Deal said he was “pleased” that Adams upheld Commissioner Russell McMurry’s decision.

East Georgia landowners and environmental groups lauded the ruling.

“This is vindication that there is no need for a petroleum pipeline on Georgia’s coast that would justify a private company forcibly taking private property for private profit,” said Steve Caley, legal director for GreenLaw, the Atlanta-based nonprofit.

While "disappointed," a Kinder Morgan spokeswoman said "we are currently reviewing the decision, its ramifications and our options." But it doesn't appear likely the company — the nation's largest pipeline infrastructure company — will abandon the so-called Palmetto Pipeline.

“We’ve been working with landowners and impacted stakeholders to address concerns and review recommendations, with the goal of constructing the pipeline to the satisfaction of all stakeholders,” spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz said in a statement.

Kinder Morgan wants to build a 360-mile gas, diesel and ethanol pipeline from South Carolina to Florida. The $1 billion project would run by Augusta and Savannah en route to Jacksonville. Its 210-mile route through Georgia would touch 23 counties.

Kinder Morgan, with 80,000 miles of miles of pipe in the United States and 3,000 miles in Georgia alone, claims Georgia consumers would benefit from cheaper energy for decades to come. And 80 percent of the proposed route would run alongside other utility rights-of-way, the company said

Dozens of landowners along the proposed route weren’t mollified.

When surveyors traipsed across property owned by Billy Morris, CEO of Morris Communications which owns newspapers in Augusta, Savannah and Jacksonville, Morris complained. Within days, Gov. Nathan Deal had opposed the project. Commissioner McMurry soon denied the company's request, citing government and academic projections showing less-than-expected gas usage in the future.

In a hearing before Judge Adams last November, Kinder Morgan claimed McMurry erred in denying the right to condemn property, relied upon faulty energy usage projections and didn’t follow basic procedural rules. Adams ruled that “substantial record evidence supports the commissioner’s denial of the application.”

Adams isn’t Kinder Morgan’s only roadblock. The Georgia House of Representatives this week passed legislation (HB 1036) blocking, albeit temporarily, the use of eminent domain for petroleum pipelines. South Carolina legislators too are considering a bill to ban eminent domain for pipeline projects for five years.