How the Kinder Morgan Palmetto Pipeline Was Defeated

In 2014, Kinder Morgan announced they were going to build a gasoline pipeline — called the Palmetto Pipeline —  that would cut through Georgia and South Carolina to carry gasoline to Jacksonville, Florida.



Earlier this year, the legislatures in those two states overwhelmingly voted to not allow the company to use eminent domain to build that pipeline.

The pipeline project was killed.

How did that happen?

Tonya Bonitatibus of Savannah Riverkeeper led the effort to defeat the pipeline.

“Kinder Morgan’s business model was based on the presumption that they get to take land with eminent domain,” Bonitatibus told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Georgia and South Carolina got together very quickly and soundly and said — I’m sorry, you don’t get to use eminent domain here.”

Pipeline companies are doing the same thing all over the country. And they are going through. But you stopped it. How?

“One difference is that Savannah Riverkeeper and the friends we work with are not far left leaning. First and foremost we focused on eminent domain. We can get to the environmental issues later. The reason we took that approach is that there were a lot of people who were not opposed to the pipeline itself, but they were opposed to having their land taken. By sticking quickly and cleanly to one message and being careful about how that message came across and put in significant effort and time in making sure it was getting out there in a good way, it brought everybody together.”

The message was — no eminent domain for private gain?

“Jane Kleeb came up with that, not me. But yes, Kinder Morgan is a private company. Our message the entire time was — this is a private company that did not show public benefit. Therefore it should not be allowed to use eminent domain. If Kinder Morgan wanted to go through the Public Service Commission, like the natural gas companies have to, then maybe we could have a conversation about them using eminent domain.”

“We never said — completely defeat Kinder Morgan. It was always — make sure these landowners have a voice. Your end game doesn’t have to be talked about constantly. Just focus on what you have in front of you right now.”

The legislatures said — no eminent domain for this pipeline. For how long?

“In South Carolina, it’s a three year moratorium. In Georgia, it’s a one year moratorium. But they also include study committees.”

“In Georgia, even before the law was changed, the Department of Transportation had denied Kinder Morgan the use of eminent domain. The legislature passed a law that said that over the next year, until the study is completed, no government entity will accept an application from Kinder Morgan for this pipeline.”

What are the chances they will come back?

“They will not come back through South Carolina. South Carolina is going to have a complete abolition of eminent domain for petroleum products.”

For natural gas too?

“These states do not have a voice when it comes to natural gas, only petroleum.”

“These pipeline fights will not be won by people tying themselves to things. That’s not how it’s going to happen. We need to reach out to people we don’t normally reach.”

“There was a three tiered strategy for us. There was Savannah Riverkeeper. There was a landowner group led by a newspaper mogul here in Augusta. His name is Billy Morris. He owned all of the papers along the pipeline route. It was convenient.”

The pipeline was going to go through Billy Morris’ property?

“Two pieces of property. They wanted six miles of his property.”

“Then there was the oil company in Savannah, which I have worked with for years — Colonial Oil — not Colonial Pipeline. They have the third largest port in the United States. There is a lot of fuel that goes in and out of there. There are going to be spills there. I have never seen them skimp on the cleanup. They have been active in their community. And they try and be socially responsible. I don’t think I can ask for much more from a company.”

“This was a local Savannah company against one from Houston, Texas that was coming in. Those were the three things — Eminent domain, Billy Morris and Colonial Oil.”

“If we had talked about ending fossil fuel use — then the landowners wouldn’t have been with us and neither would Colonial Oil been with us. But instead we were able to come together and work together in a way that was effective. We have a lot of work to do with the people throughout the United States who are working on these pipeline fights. The strategies that have been traditionally used are not the right strategies.”

Your advice would be to focus on eminent domain?

“To focus with your partners on things you have in common, not the differences. You have to come together with people you might have thought you would never be sitting in the room with. And you have to come up with — what are the things we can come together on? You are never going to agree on everything. And you probably shouldn’t. But there are ways to work together to achieve goals. You have to know how to work with people to get things done. When you alienate different groups because maybe their value set is a bit different from yours — that’s unproductive.”

“The guys that call themselves Republicans here are my conservationists. These are the guys that hunt and fish. These guys love the land. This is the dirty south. We are serious about our land.”

“I am lucky enough to be in a leadership position within the environmental movement in Georgia and South Carolina. This was a riverkeeper led coalition. We generally are not far left. We understand that water is something that everybody has to drink. It is not a Democrat or Republican issue. Some of the others in the environmental movement were saying — we have to get rid of fossil fuels to stop climate change. I was very clear to them that I would break their necks if they went out and started mouthing off about this stuff. It wasn’t time for it. We weren’t there yet. It was not an easy thing to work within that coalition. It was not easy for them to understand that sometimes you need to just sit down and be quiet and see if that doesn’t get you further along.”

“I’m in Georgia and South Carolina. Environmentalist is a bad word to a lot of people. I hate to be labelled as such. I’m not. I’m somebody who can make it so that you can drink and your economy can be healthy because you jump into that river and if it gets too dirty, we all lose. I’m not an environmentalist.”

What are you?

“You can call me a conservationist.”

What’s the difference?

“Perception is reality. If you were look at absolute definitions, probably not a whole lot. But from a perception viewpoint, when I think of environmentalists I think of folks who live in big cities, who wear all of the right gear but who would die in the woods in a day and a half. They don’t engage. They are idealistic. They are anti-hunting. A conservationist is somebody who puts far more money into conservation and preservation than the other side. It is somebody who engages and lives off the land and the natural resources.”

“We held a conference in Atlanta a couple of months ago. It was the first time I know of that pipeline activists were brought together from all over the United States. I was villainized by a good section of them because I worked with another oil company.”

You took money from the oil company?

“I didn’t take money but I worked very closely with them to pass the legislation in both states. I had some of the highest paid lobbyists in both states working with us to defeat this pipeline. Kinder Morgan had 25 lobbyists just in Georgia alone, so we were still outmanned. But I worked with the forestry commission.”

“Colonial was helpful in Georgia. It was the Farm Bureau and the Forestry Commission and Savannah Riverkeeper. That was the core group. In most cases, the Farm Bureau and the Forestry Commission fight the environmental movement. In this case, we were in lockstep.”

Was the Chamber of Commerce on your side?

“The Chamber of Commerce was neutralized. The natural gas industry was neutralized. In Georgia and South Carolina together, there were less than 26 no votes.”

“You had Billy Morris — a publisher of the newspapers opposed. The pipeline was coming through his property. You had a competing oil company opposed. And the pipeline company.”

“And they had never used eminent domain for any of their work.”

“Now both states are gearing up for permanent legislative fixes that would say — no eminent domain for petroleum pipelines.”

[For the complete q/a format of the Interview with Tonya Bonitatibus, see 30 Corporate Crime Reporter 45(11), November 21, 2016, print edition only.]

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