The Convoluted Path of Natural Gas Pipelines

Municipalities fight for the right to have a final say in where pipelines are placed


It’s an axiom: A straight line is the shortest, most efficient way to get from point A to point B. But where natural gas pipelines are concerned, the most direct route may not the best. There may be homes, schools, churches, and businesses dangerously close to high-pressure gas lines. Yet cities in Texas have very little say over the routing of pipelines. Companies wield the power of eminent domain and can basically lay pipe wherever they like.

A legislative odd couple from the Barnett Shale – Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, and Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller – are trying to remedy the problem. Their co-authored bill would give cities the power to regulate gas pipelines within their city limits.

With the rapid growth of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as ‘fracking’, new gas pipelines are cropping up across Texas, especially in the Barnett Shale, a 23-county region that includes urban and suburban Fort Worth. Many new pipelines are located in residential areas, where the fallout from an explosion (see San Bruno, California) could be devastating.

The rapid expansion of pipelines has left many residents and town leaders within the Barnett Shale feeling helpless.

Of course, not everyone agrees that giving municipalities the power to direct pipeline routes is the best solution to the problem. “The way to minimize use of private and public property for pipelines is to build them as straight as we can,” said James Mann, vice chair of the Texas Pipeline Association, at a hearing on the legislation yesterday.

John Terrell, mayor of Southlake, had a slightly different take. “A straight line is often the easiest, least expensive option, but also the most intrusive,” he said.

“We need the authority to regulate final routes of pipelines,” said Terrell. “This will help assure that the city’s long term planning efforts are not compromised by the pipelines.”

Calvin Tillman, mayor of Dish, about 25 miles north of Fort Worth, echoed Terrell’s sentiments. He told of how his town had set aside undeveloped areas of land as special economic zones, only to see their development potential plummet once natural gas pipelines were installed in the area.

City leaders say they aren’t opposed to natural gas pipelines and have attempted to work with the pipeline industry. However, under current law, Terrell said the cities can’t beat the gas companies in court. In several recent cases, judges have decided in favor of pipeline companies, ruling that the industry’s eminent domain powers trumped the municipality’s claim of sovereign immunity.

Burnam said he hopes his bill will help level the playing field just a bit.