Washington County landowners caught in eminent domain fight with Rover

If David Rheinlander believes that his 5.5 acres, which include woods and a modular home, are worth $10 million, then who exactly is the Rover Pipeline or the federal government, for that matter, to say otherwise?

“If they don’t like it, go around me,” Mr. Rheinlander said less than a week after Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based firm developing a massive natural gas pipeline, asked a federal court to condemn a 150-foot-wide line across his Washington County land so it can cut down his trees as soon as possible.

The 713-mile Rover Pipeline — spanning Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan — has been in the works for several years. It is intended to bring shale gas out of three Appalachian states to Michigan and into Ontario, Canada. On Feb. 3, Energy Transfer got a certificate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which means it can start construction.

That also gives Energy Transfer Partners the power of eminent domain, which the company was swift to exercise when it filed lawsuits last week against holdouts along the pipeline’s path in all four states.

A dozen properties in Washington County were named in the suit, Mr. Rheinlander’s wooded stretch among them.

Maybe one day, he would like to put a cabin in those woods, he said. It may never happen, but he said it’s nice to dream of having a place where he can go to play his banjo and light bonfires.

“It’s not much. But it’s mine. At least I thought it was,” he said. “Once that pipeline goes in, that dream’s gone. How do you put a price tag on that?”

Energy Transfer Partners tried. The company sent land agents to Mr. Rheinlander’s home over the course of two years — “nice enough guys,” he said. He wouldn’t mind having a beer with them, under different circumstances. Even during those amicable conversations, the phrase eminent domain was a frequent garnish, he recalled.

The initial offer was a few thousand dollars and over time, Mr. Rheinlander said, he was able to negotiate that several times higher.

“That ain’t life-changing money,” he said. “And this is gonna change my life.”

What he’s looking for is something that’s enough to pay off his mortgage. As he sees it, once the pipeline goes in, his land will be worthless.

Through an attorney in Illinois, he’s still negotiating with Energy Transfer. In its lawsuit, the company estimated the market value for Mr. Rheinlander’s easement is $3,500.

Alexis Daniel, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer, said, “Our first priority is to negotiate voluntary easement agreements with landowners.”

She noted that across the company’s project portfolio, more than 90 percent of easements are granted voluntarily.

“If that is not possible, our last resort is to use legal options,” she said.

A sense of urgency

The Rover pipeline is already behind schedule. It was supposed to start construction last year. Now, the company says, it must move at breakneck pace to meet its in-service dates later this year.

More specifically, it has to have completed all tree chopping work by the end of March to avoid the spring and summer seasons when certain protected wildlife species nest in those trees.

Around 15,000 construction jobs hang in the balance, the company said, and if it misses its target date of operation, what will follow is “incalculable economic loss together with loss of reputation,” the lawsuit said.

“All combined, the losses will initially be millions of dollars per day but ultimately will be billions of dollars of lost revenue, lost economic development in the region and lost energy supply diversity and reliability to the consumers” it states.

Back when the matter was still before the FERC, several natural gas companies that would be using the pipeline urged the commission to approve it, including Range Resources Corp., Rice Energy Inc. and Antero Resources.

“Many companies, including EdgeMarc Energy, have invested in anticipation of the pipeline’s completion in early 2017,” Callum Streeter, chief operating officer of Canonsburg-based EdgeMarc, wrote to the agency in 2015.

“We certainly understand the complexities of the project,” he wrote, and that it needs to be carried out with “consideration of all those living and working in proximity.”

“This is no small task,” he added.

The drilling companies should know. They, too, send land agents to secure access to people’s land, selling the idea of loud and often inconvenient well pads. But oil and gas firms don’t have eminent domain to throw around in negotiations, unlike pipeline builders.

“They don’t negotiate. They just come in and tell you what they’re gonna do,” said Emery Minges, a retired farmer reflecting on his experience with the Rover pipeline.

Too late for route change?

About two years ago, Mr. Minges said, he was getting ready to cut hay when he saw some workers eating lunch under a tree on his property. They said they were surveying for a pipeline.

Mr. Minges didn’t like that. He said he hadn’t granted permission for them to be there. But he later agreed to a survey.

When he saw the company’s planned route, he balked again.

“What they’re gonna do is come through my hay field,” he said.

That’s not all that bothers him. While Mr. Minges has a decades-old Columbia Transmission gas pipeline running through his property, the Rover pipe would be much larger and the gas inside under significantly higher pressure.

“If that line ever blows up, I won’t be here,” he said. “My house, my barn, all my equipment. I try to tell them that and they tell me that nothing ever happens.”

But Mr. Minges said he has seen it with his own eyes — the flames coming from a Texas Eastern natural gas transmission pipeline that exploded in Westmoreland County last April. The images in the newspaper were terrifying, he said.

Burned trees and a car along Route 819 in Salem after a Texas Eastern natural gas transmission pipeline exploded last April. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

“No matter what you asked them to do, they say, ‘We’ve already laid it out and we can’t make any changes,’ ” Mr. Minges said.

Not that it would matter now, he said, adding, “It’s already been cast in stone. They’ve gone through FERC, whatever that is.”

He said what many other landowners have said in his position: He doesn’t want to stop progress. He’s not against the gas industry (he even signed a lease with Range Resources to possibly drill in the Marcellus Shale, though it expired last year).

“I wouldn’t even mind the line if they put it where I want them to put it,” he said.

Finding another route

Pipeline companies hire environmental firms to do surveys of proposed routes, mapping out potential impacts on streams, wildlife and other infrastructure. But that context is seldom communicated to individual landowners.

Patrick Redalen, president of Stonehenge Energy Resources, addressed this conundrum at Hart Energy’s Marcellus-Utica Midstream Conference last month in Pittsburgh.

“The easiest route to build, the easiest route to permit tends to be right down the farmer’s field,” he said. And “that’s the last line they want to sell you.”

Instead, they want you to go on the periphery, he said, where there are wetlands and other obstacles that aren’t a deterrent for property owners but can be showstoppers for pipeline firms.

Mr. Rheinlander and his wife, Gretchen, appear to feel most betrayed by the FERC, which grants the power of eminent domain to private companies.

Although the approval process depends on the commission finding that the pipeline is necessary and in the interest of the public good, Gretchen Rheinlander, who grows emotional talking about the issue, says, “It feels like your country let you down.”

She thought eminent domain was reserved for the “benefit of the country and the people.”

Energy Transfer is a private firm and the gas will be going to Canada, she said.

She thought about calling her state representative to tell her story to someone who might care.

But the time for that would have been during the FERC deliberation process, the Rheinlanders’ attorney, Jordan Walker, said. That’s when landowners are most successful in arguing that a pipeline shouldn’t cross their land or suggesting alternative routes.

Indeed, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who represents Washington County, wrote to the FERC on behalf of two Pennsylvania landowners.

The two landowners said the pipeline company had chosen a route along the most valuable land on the parcel; that putting it there would impact the property’s current and future use and destroy its value; that a perfectly good alternative existed; and that they had asked landmen “repeatedly” to work with them in achieving this.

In both cases, the company and the landowners worked out a suitable route, Mr. Murphy’s office confirmed.

The number of eminent domain pipeline cases has risen in proportion to the pace at which pipelines are being built to accommodate the shale gas boom — which is to say, it has ballooned, Mr. Walker said.

For landowners faced with its gavel, it’s a matter of understanding what the company is offering and determining “is it worth it to the client to risk everything to possibly get less.”

Earlier last week, a few days after Energy Transfer sued to condemn Mr. Minges’ land, he decided to sign the easement.

“Because I have no choice,” he said. “If you don’t sign up, then they just come and do it anyway.”

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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