Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus speaks to Georgia lawmakers during a public hearing in Augusta on property condemnations for Kinder Morgan's proposed petroleum pipeline. Credit: Chris Thelen / Augusta Chronicle via AP
Georgia state Rep. Bill Hitchens

Georgia state Rep. Bill Hitchens has nothing against pipelines—in fact, he was in favor of the Keystone XL project.

But when it comes to energy monolith Kinder Morgan and their temporarily suspended plans for the controversial $1 billion Palmetto Pipeline—which would carry gasoline and diesel fuel from Belton, South Carolina, across 400 miles of Georgia coast and on to Jacksonville, Florida—he has put up a fight that will last at least another eleven months, until July, 2017.

Hitchens, a Republican, represents Georgia’s 161st district, in Effingham County, which is fast becoming a bedroom community for Savannah. The county’s coastal lowlands are wedged between the Ogeechee and Savannah rivers, and its broad floodplains, major rivers, swamp forests and diverse wildlife are ecologically unique and highly vulnerable to a petroleum spill.

Hitchens says he’s worried by the 2015, 300,000 gallon Kinder Morgan pipeline spill in Belton, South Carolina, as well as the use of eminent domain by private companies. Hitchens first spearheaded legislation enacting a pipeline moratorium until July 1, 2017, and then proposed the bipartisan study commission, which is to have up to five meetings before voting on the use of eminent domain and updated regulations for pipelines carrying petroleum and diesel.

Says Hitchens: “More than 23 years have elapsed since the state of Georgia took a hard look at its process of approving pipelines, and our new study commission is bipartisan, will contain 13 members from across the entire state, and will work to establish a new approval process.”

Hitchens has served in the Georgia House of Representatives since 2012. He is a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and served 28 years on the Georgia State Patrol, as well as two tours as the Executive Officer of Coast Guard Reserve Unit Air Station Savannah. He spoke recently with Southeast Energy News about his perspective on the Palmetto pipeline and eminent domain.

Southeast Energy News: The last time Georgia set out a process for approving petroleum pipelines was in 1993. What happened back then?

Hitchens: A pipeline was built in middle Georgia, just below Macon, and one of the individuals whose land it ran across just happened to be in the House of Representatives. He had to give up some property to the pipeline, which ran through his pecan orchards. Subsequently there was a leak that killed all his pecan trees, so he asked the state to form a commission on pipelines and they came up with new laws and guidelines.

But that was 23 years ago. Technology and the world have changed very significantly since then, and it’s time to enact a new approval process. Right now, petroleum pipelines are regulated by the state alone, whereas natural gas pipelines [such as the recently approved Sabal pipeline] are regulated by the federal government.

The outrage and outcry from your constituents against the Palmetto pipeline was widely noted. Why were they so against it?

When I went to the first public hearing on this I was just astonished at the crowd that gathered and the public concern. I represent the 3rd fastest growing district in state of Georgia. We’re a bedroom community of Savannah. But we are also one of Georgia’s original counties and there is a lot of pride in ancestry and ownership.

In 1733 a group of Protestants left Salzburg, Austria, emigrated to England and then sailed to America, landing twenty miles north of Savannah. They settled this land and persevered. One man who testified against the pipeline in a public hearing said the King of England had granted his family land in 1753 and not an acre had ever been sold.

He said, “I don’t want to be the one that loses it, and I already lost 46 acres to Georgia Power through eminent domain.” He refused to let Kinder Morgan survey his land, but one day he came home and found they had surveyed it anyway, so he hooked up his tractor and plowed their stakes to the ground.

I’m pro-business, but I want our businesses to be good neighbors and take care of the environment. We have the third largest container port on the East Coast. We have Gulfstream Air, a corporate aircraft company. Georgia Pacific, a paper company, has a plant here and they are recycling old newspapers and cardboard and making toilet paper and paper towels. It’s much cleaner to recycle. Those are examples of good business neighbors.

So there’s a deep, abiding affiliation to the land here, a history?

Right. Then there is the fact that this ecosystem is pristine and vulnerable; a pipeline spill could severely damage it. We’ve already experienced damage from chemical and gas spills. Twenty years ago we were prohibited from eating fish from our rivers because of mercury contamination from a bomb plant up in Augusta.

Four years ago, the Ogeechee River, which was deemed the most pristine river in the state of Georgia, had the largest fish kill ever in the state, due to a refinishing company dumping chemicals into the river. The company paid a fine of $5 million and went about their business, but the public outcry was so bad they finally sold out and went back to Chicago. And I was involved one time with a mere 300 gallon spill.

The damage was beyond belief, it contaminated wells for a quarter of mile, leaked for two months at a state facility, and a dozen years after the cleanup the wells still had benzene, a derivative of gasoline. The state had to build a waterline from Savannah to provide people with safe water, and buy contaminated properties as well.  The water table around here is pretty significant.

It seems the most important reason for the outcry is the use of eminent domain by a private company. How have you approached that?

Eminent domain allows governments to condemn property if it is needed for public use, such as a building roads or power lines or pipelines that are a public necessity. It’s meant for the public good. But to use eminent domain to take private property for a pipeline that is for private enterprise, for profit, and not of value to anybody here, I am against that.

There are 400 properties in Georgia that would have to be seized or sold to build this pipeline. Eminent domain is used when landowners refuse to voluntarily sell their property. But what does voluntarily selling that property entail? I don’t have any disagreement with a transaction between buyer and seller, but it would cost Kinder Morgan a lot more to purchase the land outright.

The man I mentioned previously, with property from the King of England, got $800-$1,200 an acre for 46 acres for Georgia Power. His neighbor just sold property nearby in a private transaction for $20,000 an acre.

With eminent domain they don’t buy the property, they buy the rights to use it forever. You still own your property, you still pay property taxes on it, but you can’t use it. You can’t grow trees over a pipeline. You may be able to run cattle on it. Fifty years down the road, if it leaks, who pays for the cleanup? The state of Georgia ends up paying for it, which costs taxpayers more money.

And if the owners don’t sell their property, the government can condemn and take the land, though they must pay property owners what it considers a fair price.

Why did you propose a moratorium on pipelines until July, 2017?

The moratorium, which was put forth in House Bill 1036, gives the commission time to work out a permanent solution. We can have up to five public hearings. The Kinder Morgan pipeline would be the first exercise of the power of eminent domain for private enterprise.

I don’t think Kinder Morgan should get a free ride because of the way the law was in 1994. That’s why I also proposed the commission, but I’m just one person on a committee of 13 that represents a wide variety of interests, which allows everybody across the state to have their say. [Eleven] individuals have been appointed so far by Gov. (Nathan) Deal.

A recent legislative hearing on this took place on March 22. What was that like?

We got into a big battle on the floor. We went at it pretty hard. Kinder Morgan had more lobbyists working against me than I have ever seen, or anybody has ever seen, previously.

Last March, Savannah Now reported that Kinder Morgan had actually written a loophole into their agreement, which could allow them to decide not to construct a terminal in Savannah at all. The paper also reported that the tariffs in Georgia favored volume shipping straight to Florida. That might mean the pipeline doesn’t actually service Georgia once it’s built. Is there actually a need for this pipeline in Georgia?

No, I don’t see any need. But I’m not sure Florida needs it, either. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of petroleum in either place.  However, they could ship the petroleum overseas from Jacksonville. Ten years ago that would have been a crazy idea, but the prices of petroleum in Europe now are very high, and that would be a profitable business.

South Carolina is now considering a five year ban on the ability of private, for-profit pipeline companies to use eminent domain to purchase property owners’ land. Do you have any hunch about how things will turn out? Will the Palmetto Pipeline rise again to haunt you?

Two Kinder Morgan lobbyists called me last week and asked me to come talk to them. They say they want to keep an open line of communication. I believe they would resuscitate the pipeline if legislation allowed it. Our businesses must be good neighbors, and not contaminate our environment. I want us to put everything in place legally to make sure business development is as safe for the environment as possible.

Jill Neimark is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes for venues such as Science, Scientific American, Discover, Nautilus, NPR, Quartz and others.