While topics such as tax reform, expanded gaming and an austere biennial budget have taken precedence during the first half of this year’s legislative session, the hot-button topic of natural gas liquids pipelines will take center stage Wednesday.
Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee are expected to consider a bill that would limit the use of eminent domain by companies building pipelines such as the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline that is planned to cross Franklin County en route to the Gulf Coast.
The joint venture between Williams and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners has stoked much debate throughout the state, especially in Central Kentucky. The companies have claimed receipt of more than half the easements necessary for the state’s 200-mile portion of the roughly 1,100-mile project, but the threat of eminent domain looms over negotiations for land rights.
Company officials have said they will only pursue eminent domain as a last resort. Still, some lawmakers want to force such condemnation battles before regulatory bodies like the Public Service Commission.
Those interviewed by The State Journal Friday said two accidents in subsequent days last week — a sinkhole beneath the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green and an underground natural gas transmission line that exploded in Adair County that destroyed two homes and hospitalized two residents — underscore the environmental concerns of building a natural gas liquids pipeline in Kentucky.
Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, said both disasters have strengthened the odds that the General Assembly will pass eminent domain legislation this session.
“I’m confident that we’ll get House Bill 31 through the House,” Floyd said. “Last week, I would be worried about the Senate. However, after the incidents of the last several days — Adair County, the sinkhole — it’s gotten more attention, and I think that that has improved its prospects in the Senate.”
Floyd is one of three co-sponsors of HB 31, sponsored by Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, which would force companies wanting to condemn private property for the construction of natural gas liquids pipelines to petition the Public Service Commission.
Floyd has also filed House Bill 60, which would block the use of eminent domain for unrefined natural gas liquids, and House Bill 387, which would require companies building such pipelines to apply for a construction certificate with the Kentucky State Board on Electric Generation and Transmission. HB 60, however, will not be considered in lieu of an amended version of HB 31, which will be introduced during a House Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday, he said.
Tilley, the committee’s chairman, said the entire two-hour meeting would be dedicated to HB 31.
“We’re not going to restrict anyone’s testimony except as to time; we’re going to try to give equal time to everyone who’d like to have a say,” he said.
Though specifics of the legislation were unavailable, he said the amended bill “will simplify things,” increasing the chances both chambers will approve the measure.
“I have met with a number of stakeholders,” Tilley said, noting those meetings with Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have taken place throughout the 60-day session’s first 28 days. “I think there’s a good amount of bipartisan support for the concept.”
He met with Bluegrass Pipeline representatives several weeks ago to discuss HB 31 and said he expects company officials to testify before the judiciary committee, adding he’s “certainly willing to continue those discussions up and until and through and after the meeting (Wednesday).”
This week’s committee hearing is welcome news for Sen. Jimmy Higdon, who has filed Senate Bill 21, legislation that mirrors Floyd’s HB 60. SB 21 has not been called before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has been idle since Jan. 13.
“That’s the best news I’ve had,” he said when told of Wednesday’s planned hearing of HB 31.
His goal is to have a hearing on SB 21 by the end of the month, though action by the House could negate his efforts.
“That’s pretty much a standard operating procedure here,” Higdon said. “The House goes first on something, typically — not all the time, but typically — you’ll see the Senate stand down and let their bill make it over here to us.”
The prospects of passing an eminent domain bill, however, remain to be seen.
“There’s a whole army of people here killing bills,” Higdon said.