A Lancaster County, Pennsylvania couple is trying to take their case to the highest court in the country. The issue at hand: whether their Fifth Amendment rights as private landowners are being violated by an oil and gas pipeline company’s alleged abuse of eminent domain laws.
Eminent domain is a legal concept that is often evoked in natural gas and oil development nationally. Cornell Law School defines eminent domain as “the power of the government to take private property and convert it to public use…if they provide just compensation to property owners”. While initially intended solely for government use for the public good, a previous Supreme Court case, Kelo v. New London, expanded the law, now allowing the government to take private land and subsequently sell that land to private parties. In Justice John Paul Stevens’s majority opinion, he stated that the Fifth Amendment did not require “literal” public use of the land claimed via eminent domain. Rather, it would have to be used as “public purpose”.
The Lancaster case does have differences from Kelo v. New London. In this case, the Transcontinental Pipe Line Company, or Transco, is claiming eminent domain of portions of the citizens’ 72-acre property to be used for pipeline development in exchange for compensation for the land taken. Transco defends their claim by arguing that the pipelines built on the property would be for the public good, as it would allow natural gas to be supplied to the region. However, Transco is a private company, not a government entity, which is the key difference between Kelo and this instance.
The citizens have filed a cert petition, which asks the Supreme Court to review their case. The Supreme Court receives thousands of cert petitions, but only selects approximately one hundred cases per session. If the case is selected by the Court, the decision could explicitly define the laws for eminent domain, potentially expanding them to private organizations whose operations do benefit the public or limiting them to government entities alone.