Mitch McConnell's decision to kick off his tenure as Senate majority leader with a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline is igniting a debate that could force his fellow Republicans to say whether they think human-caused climate change is real.
In Kentucky, Keystone raises questions of a more local, even personal, nature: How to protect farms, forests, home places and property rights from energy companies that claim the power of eminent domain? Also, how to make smart decisions about routing pipelines and their above-ground infrastructure?
Kentucky lies between booming shale oil and gas fields to the north and refineries and chemical processors on the Gulf. A plan to build a natural gas liquids pipeline through 13 counties was dropped last year after an outcry of opposition and a Franklin Circuit Court ruling that the company could not force landowners to sell.
There are bound to be other proposals for new pipelines and converting existing ones to carry natural gas byproducts known as NGLs, including ethane, propane and butane, which are explosive and also pose a threat of groundwater contamination. There's already a plan to convert a natural gas pipeline that runs from Greenup County through Morehead and Campbellsville to NGLs.
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When the legislature reconvenes next month, it should:
■ Make clear that the power of eminent domain is exclusively reserved for pipelines and infrastructure that serve public utilities.
■ Bring pipeline proposals that do not serve public utilities under the siting rules that already govern non-public electrical transmission and generation.
House Bill 103, sponsored by Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, is a good start on defending property rights, but the bill should be made more airtight and include siting requirements.
Kentuckians who question whether stronger protections are needed should consider what's happening to rural Nebraskans whose land Trans- Canada, a Canadian company, says it has the power to take by eminent domain.
Keystone would move oil extracted from Alberta tar sands to Gulf coast processors. The project needs federal approval because it crosses an international border.
In 2011, Nebraska's legislature and Republican governor carved out exemptions in state law that gave TransCanada the power to condemn land and bypass the state's siting process.
A lower court struck down the special treatment for TransCanada. Last week, four of the seven justices on Nebraska's Supreme Court also ruled that the law giving TransCanada the power of eminent domain was unconstitutional. But Nebraska requires a supermajority of at least five justices to overturn a law. The other three justices declined to rule on the constitutional questions, opting instead to say the plaintiffs lacked standing, TransCanada won, and the landowners and public lost, through default.
Ranchers, fearful that a pipeline projected to create 35 permanent jobs will pollute the great water source that is the Ogallala Aquifer and damage their land, are planning their next move but face powerful, monied interests that reach all the way to the top of the U.S. Senate.
McConnell owes his re-election to the votes of rural Kentuckians who saw him as a defender of conservative values such as defending private property. He should think twice about pushing a project that is trampling the rights of rural people.