Taking Land for Power: Eminent Domain and Energy Infrastructure

When energy infrastructure crosses private land, it has long been held that property can be claimed by eminent domain in the name of the “public good.” The complex emotional and legal battles that follow a taking of land raises difficult questions about whether an energy infrastructure project is in the public good when the product is exclusively for export. The public will have a chance to examine this debate on Wednesday evening at Vermont Law School. Filmmaker Nicol Ragland, along with legal experts John Echeverria, Rob Woolmington, and James Dumont will discuss how eminent domain is utilized in building energy infrastructure.  Esteemed Professor of Law & Director of the Environmental Tax Policy Institute, Janet Milne, joins as moderator on Wednesday April 10 at the VLS Chase Community Center from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Registration is free and open to the public and a Tex-Mex dinner will be provided.

The evening will include a screening of "Trans-Pecos: The Story of Stolen Land and the Loss of America's Last Frontier.”  In it, filmmaker Nicol Ragland paints a quiet portrait of the landowners' struggle against a trans-national pipeline project that marched across Big Bend, Texas before crossing the Rio Grande and continuing into Mexico. Ragland found that by taking advantage of a loophole in the law, Energy Transfer Partners could segment the project. One portion from the middle of the Rio Grande to the shore is governed by the federal government; the other 148 miles are governed by Texas. Under Texas law, a pipeline company does not need to provide public good before taking land under eminent domain and can build the infrastructure project before ever paying the landowners.

Houston Chronical reporter L.M. Sixel noted, “Pipeline companies in Texas and other states have long had the power to take land under the eminent domain principle that projects to transport energy to heat homes, generate electricity and produce fuels are in the public interest.  But what if the public is in Europe, South America or Asia?”

As economic benefits are seated more in corporate hands than public ones, land owners in Texas are questioning the long-held tenet that energy infrastructure is truly in the public good. In Vermont, 28 legislators have challenged the practice of eminent domain with the introduction of H.175, which proposes to prohibit the exercise of eminent domain by utilities for purposes of fossil fuel infrastructure.     

Margaret Shugart is one of the organizers of Wednesday’s event. A JD’19 student at VLS, Margaret grew up in the Big Bend region of Texas. “The eminent domain proceedings that Texans in Big Bend faced with the Trans-Pecos Pipeline raise legal questions relevant to many communities across the nation. Ms. Ragland’s film offers an important opportunity for legal scholars and interested citizens to come together and discuss the benefits and hazards that arise when property rights are challenged.” 

This event is free and open to the public and Continuing Legal Education credit will be available to attorneys.