Experts have some advice for those in the path of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline expansion project: start planning now.
“What I counsel everyone to do is get involved as early as possible,” land rights attorney Carl Engleman said. “Intervene in the proceedings, participate to the greatest extent that you can.”
Engleman, of Reading, said those who voice their opinions early on have a better chance for things to go their way.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is overseeing the project and now is accepting citizen comments through its website, www.ferc.gov. Comments also may be submitted by mail to the FERC offices in Washington.
Williams — the company that owns and operates the Transco, one of the country’s largest interstate pipelines — has started a lengthy process to build a new pipeline through Pennsylvania to feed gas into the interstate line.
Atlantic Sunrise is to carry natural gas harvested from the Marcellus Shale region to the Transco where it passes through Lancaster County.
Williams has selected a path it believes will bring minimal disturbance. That path, which likely will be tweaked, crosses through Luzerne and Wyoming counties on its way from Susquehanna County to Columbia County.
Property owners along the route must grant Williams easements, an exchange for which Williams makes a one-time payment. Williams estimates there are 154 properties in Luzerne County likely to fall along the final path.
In Luzerne County, about 80 percent of the new pipeline follows existing routes. In Dallas Township and much of Wyoming County, Williams must cut new routes to lay what are called “greenfield pipelines” or lines through uncharted territory.
Unless otherwise specified in old agreements, new easements must be negotiated for all affected properties.
Most negotiations take more than one or two offers before both parties agree, Engleman said.
Williams proposes about 25 miles of new 32-inch pipeline traveling north to south along Wyoming County’s eastern edge, and about 25 miles of pipeline along Luzerne County’s northernmost tier reaching a proposed compressor station in Columbia County before turning south.
Williams has assigned agents to procure easements from landowners along the route.
FERC must approve Williams’ route and issue a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity before the company can go to work. But to save time, agents may begin speaking with property owners soon after the certificate application is filed, Williams spokesman Christopher Stockton said.
Williams plans to formally file for the certificate sometime next June. The company proposes to complete the project entirely by late 2017.
Just how much money Williams will pay for an easement depends on the property’s value to the landowner. No two eased properties are identical, Engleman said.
“With respect to whether (the price) is reasonable or not, it really depends on what the landowner uses the property for,” Engleman said.
The agents will make offers based on tax records, deeds, independent sources and local real estate professionals, Stockton said. Right now, considered the “pre-filing stage,” is the time for landowners to tell Williams of special conditions, but Engleman says they should be reasonable.
For example, “don’t raise the issue that it’s prime bog turtle habitat if it’s not there,” Engleman said. “As long as folks are raising cogent issues that have legs, the process works.”
A third-party expert, like an ecologist or biologist, should prove an area requires special care and would be harmed if the pipeline goes through it, Engleman said.
Jack Cleary of Dallas Township, partly owns property in Northmoreland Township, Wyoming County, where the pipeline is planned to cross. His land already hosts a smaller pipeline installed by Williams Field Services, a separate branch of Williams, several years ago.
So Cleary is familiar with the easement process.
“They more than met any of our requests,” Cleary said, and explained he felt the price was fair. “My experience with them — they’re not gonna build you a new house or anything, but they want it to go as smoothly as possible.”
When it comes to signing contracts, the terms and conditions can be just as important as the price, Steven Karabin, a property rights consultant and founder of The Rhino Group oil and gas management company in Wyomissing, said.
Landowners should have in writing just what Williams is going to do on their property.
For example, Williams likely will need to rent temporary work space near the pipeline for workers to stage equipment and materials. Construction crews also may request to move fences or similar small structures out of the way. It should be in writing that they’ll put them back, or pay to replace them when the work is done.
Karabin also warned landowners to be sure there are terms on whether the company will use the easement beyond pipeline construction.
He recalled a case in which a pipeline company (not Williams) made a deal with a cell phone service provider to erect a tower on eased property. They could do this because the contract had no language prohibiting it.
Landowners also should learn if timber is going to be removed from the land, and farmers should learn if any of their crops will be torn out during construction.
“The landowner has to make sure he’s going to be compensated for all that,” Karabin said.
An informal landowners group may help when bargaining for a better price or more comprehensive terms, Karabin said.
“If people can band together as a group, you’ll have more leverage than if you were going solo,” Karabin said.
Williams pays, on the outset, two to three times assessed values, Stockton said. The company considers special conditions and pledges to make good on any damage to surrounding property or structures; however, the landowner is encouraged to stay aloof, he said.
“We’re committed to dealing openly and fairly and honestly, but the landowner needs to protect their property,” Stockton said.
Once FERC approves the project, it grants Williams the authority to act on eminent domain.
Translation: the company can take land paying whatever a judge deems appropriate, which often is the base assessed value.
Stockton and other Williams representatives have said they seldom enforce eminent domain to secure easements, and as few as 5 percent of their projects nationwide have needed it.
But with the possibility in mind, Karabin and Engleman advise landowners to begin negotiating early to get the best deal for their property.