RICHMOND — Efforts to scrap Virginia’s controversial pipeline surveying law hit a wall in a Senate committee Monday afternoon.
Senate Bill 614, sponsored by Sen. John Edwards, was killed on a bipartisan 13-0 vote.
“I thought we had a better chance than that,” Kirk Bowers with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, which supported the bill, said afterward.
“They’re not listening to the people,” Bowers said. “They’re listening to the industry representatives.”
Edwards’ bill sought to repeal a 2004 law that allows natural gas pipeline companies to send surveying crews onto private property without the owner’s consent provided that advance notice is given.
“This is a question of property rights,” said Edwards, D-Roanoke, arguing the laws runs counter to the 2012 constitutional amendment the state adopted to strengthen eminent domain protections.
Edwards criticized the law as an unnecessary intrusion on private property owners. Pipelines were built before the law was in place and can continue to be, he said.
The bill drew opposition from several energy interests, including Dominion, which is spearheading the Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposal.
The right of entry granted under the law is a common provision given to those who can exercise eminent domain in order to help them map out the least disruptive route, said Dominion representative John Rust.
Without that ability, companies will struggle to narrow their proposals, Rust said.
“Then they have to take a wider route than they need, and they may find once they get in there that the property they’ve taken is not suitable for what they’re doing,” he said.
“Ultimately, this right of entry protects the landowner, protects the commonwealth and gives us an opportunity to get the optimal route.”
The Virginia Oil and Gas Association, which also opposed the bill, argued the right of entry for surveying stems not from the 2004 law, but from long-standing common law principles dating to the 1800s.
The disputed state law protects property owners by limiting what companies can do and requiring advance notice of surveying, it said.
SB 614 faced skeptical questions from the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee during Monday’s hearing. Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, said new natural gas lines are poised to be an economic boon for the state and asked Edwards if his bill wasn’t setting up a “kind of onerous” procedure.
Chairman Frank Wagner, who carried the bill that created the 2004 law, noted most states have a similar surveying law in place.
In an earlier interview, Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, had said the law helps facilitate important natural gas infrastructure that will only grow more needed as Virginia continues its shift away from coal-fired power production.
“This [law] was just one way to recognize, 10 or 12 years ago, that these pipelines and this infrastructure need to get built and we’re going to have to facilitate doing whatever we can to make it as practical as possible,” he said.
Edwards’ bill was backed by environmental groups and property owners who’ve been sparring with the companies seeking to build hundreds of miles of new natural gas lines across Virginia.
Richard Averitt, who lives in Nelson County along the Atlantic Coast Pipeline route, said current law stifles the incentive for private companies to negotiate by giving them “a hammer” to use against landowners
“It prioritizes the gas company’s interest over the interests of the individual landowner. That doesn’t seem right,” he said.
“It’s my land. It’s not Dominion’s land or ACP’s land.”
Edwards’ bill was defeated on a unanimous vote with two abstentions. Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, is carrying an identical repeal bill in the House of Delegates.
Yost’s bill is slated to be heard in subcommittee Tuesday.