It’s not every day you get Democrats Ed Fallon and Rob Hogg on the same side of an issue with Republicans Bobby Kaufmann and Greg Heartsill. But that’s exactly where leaders from both sides of the aisle find themselves when it comes to opposing or restricting the Bakken Pipeline.
The mix of interests and issues at stake has made for some strange bedfellows. A coalition of environmental and anti-eminent domain supporters have joined together to oppose or restrict the project’s development. On the other side, Democratic-leaning unions looking out for construction jobs have joined with pro-pipeline conservatives.
“There are allies on the right and left and there are opponents on the right and left,” says Ed Fallon, a former legislator and environmental activist. “A lot of farmers are very strong environmentalists as well, who are also concerned about climate change. But the conversation you have most often is ‘what right does a private company have to come in and take my land so that some guy in Texas can get rich?'”
That concern over eminent domain and property rights is what’s motivating many on the right to buck the national Republican goal of building the Keystone and Bakken Pipeline. They see the situation as one where government is unfairly taking individuals’ property (though with proper compensation), in this case not even necessarily for a public good or project.
“It’s not about the source of the energy – for me it’s about property rights,” says Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican state representative from Cedar County. “When I started talking in that way, I noticed a significant amount of Republicans who have said we need to be fair here and property rights are property rights. It’s about fundamental personal freedoms … It kind of made it seem okay for a Republican to start talking like that.”
Also at issue is the Rock Island Clean Line electrical transmission line that connects to Iowa’s wind energy fields. That’s backed by Democrats in favor of improving clean energy infrastructure, but is another out-of-state-owned company facing similar eminent domain issues.
The pipeline issue is proving a tricky one for presidential candidates, especially on the Republican side. As they campaign in Iowa, some are having difficulty balancing the national conservative support for the Keystone and Bakken pipelines with local opposition to governments using eminent domain. Starting Line witnessed a humorous situation with Carly Fiorina about a month ago where a questioner asked her if she supports eminent domain. “No,” she replied, saying it was big government run amok. “Then you don’t support the Keystone Pipeline?” the questioner quickly pressed. Fiorina didn’t have a good answer.
“You can’t just blindly support a project and support property rights,” Kaufmann says. “But you can support a project so long as a super-majority of people affected are done voluntarily.”
Kaufmann is pushing forward legislation to bridge that divide – making eminent domain possible for those projects, but only under very certain, restrictive circumstances where a 75% super-majority of local landowners agree. His bill in the House would also increase insurance on the pipeline in case of a spill and also demand agents for the company couldn’t approach or threaten landowners with eminent domain unless they actually had the authority to do so.
“That’s what my legislation in the state does – it allows Democrats on the Rock Island Clean Line and allows Republicans on the Bakken Pipeline to toe that line by putting a certain percentage to it,” Kaufmann explains. He also notes that he’s met landowners who do want the pipeline on their land.
“We want to stop it, period,” Fallon says of environmentalist concerns of the pipeline. Still, he sees Kaufmann’s and others’ legislation as a very positive step. “But beyond that, whatever can be done to create a more fair playing field – that’s a good role for government to play.”
“I thought back in 2006 when me and Bobby’s dad were working on what was responding to the Kelo case, we thought we had defined [eminent domain] pretty clearly that it wasn’t okay for government to take land and turn it over to a developer so some private entity could get rich,” Fallon recalls of his previous work in the Legislature. “Some of us are kind of surprised this is even a conversation. We thought we had that base covered, but apparently there’s enough grey area about where a pipeline falls in the public/private specter that we’re even having this battle.”
That history of bipartisan cooperation on reigning in potential eminent domain abuse is reappearing again. In the Senate Jack Whitver has supported Rob Hogg’s language in that chamber’s legislation, while Kaufmann has taken the lead in the House.
“I’ve spent more time in the last two weeks talking to Rob Hogg and Ed Fallon than I have my Republican colleagues,” jokes Kaufmann, who’s been pleased with the results his working relationships with several Democrats have produced. “It’s been a very odd situation to see a Rob Hogg or a Mary Mascher and a Greg Heartsill meet and shake on this … When you’ve got Jack Whitver, Rob Hogg, Greg Heartsill and Mary Wolfe all voting for something, that’s news.”
As for the prospects of the pipeline itself, Fallon sees promise in Iowa from similar cooperation elsewhere.
“Looking west to Nebraska is very instructive,” Fallon points out. “A coalition of environmentalists, ranchers, farmers and Native Americans have been able to stop the Keystone. The real key component – the heart and soul of the coalition – is the land owners, people right in the path of the pipeline. They didn’t ask to be a part of this fight – they’re accidentally dragged into it.”
It also helps in Iowa where the pipeline company has been recently caught in some embarrassing PR messes, like when a Bakken pipeline agent was accused of bribing a landowner with some young prostitutes in exchange for selling his land.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Fallon about the ability to stop the pipeline in Iowa. “There’s several unknown factors, but every time you turn around there’s a new reason why the pipeline company is probably having another bad day.”
[Update: This morning Ed Fallon announced he’ll organize an effort to target Senate Democrats and/or House Republicans if the eminent domain bills fail. That will make this alliance all the more interesting to watch, as that can’t possibly make any Senate Democrat happy.]
by Pat Rynard