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Oak trees to be removed to make way for oil pipeline

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Jan. 3, 2012 at 6:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 2, 2012 at 7:03 p.m.

Ed Southern looks into the brush of oak trees on his land near Cuero. Twenty-five trees are  marked for removal  to make room for an  oil pipeline through his land. The pipeline company, Kinder Morgan, is compensating Southern for right-of-way, damages, easement and grass, but not for trees.

The details

A $220 million pipeline being laid by Kinder Morgan will run from Cuero to the Houston Ship Channel and is scheduled to be finished later this year.

CUERO - Ed Southern tipped his head back, his eyes taking in the hulking size of a live oak tree.

The tree is huge with a trunk so large Southern's hands don't meet when he puts his arms around it. Glossy green leaves shook in the gentle breeze.

The tree, one of many that grows in a grove nestled on Southern's land, has been there as long as he can remember. Soon there will be nothing but a bare space where the tree stands. The tree is one of about 25 oak trees growing in a grove slated to be torn down to make way for a pipeline being laid by Kinder Morgan, a natural gas pipeline company.

The pipeline is one of many being put in to handle the glut of oil being produced from the Eagle Ford Shale, a formation that runs from the Texas-Mexico border into East Texas and has brought an oil boom to the Crossroads.

The $220 million pipeline will transport 300,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Cuero to the Houston Ship Channel. Due to be completed later this year, the pipeline will consist of 61 miles of newly built pipeline and 109 miles of natural gas pipeline that is being converted to move oil.

When the Southerns found their property was in the path of the planned pipeline, they decided opposing the company's plan to come through their land didn't seem practical.

"It would have been a long battle. Our country is deep in debt and we need the oil just to help us get back on our feet. All I wanted was a fair chance to grow some more trees," he said.

He met with Kinder Morgan representatives last August. The first thing they asked him was whether he knew what eminent domain - the power to take private property for public use - meant.

"They laid their cards on the table," Southern said.

The company initially offered Southern and his wife Billie about $54,000 to run the pipeline through their property. Southern realized the path the company planned to take through the property would cut a 50-foot-wide swath through a grove of live oak trees that have been growing in that spot for generations. Cutting down the grove of trees will take away a source of shade for the cattle that his nephew runs on the property, and acorns used in cattle feed.

Southern worked out how much it would cost to replace trees and asked Kinder Morgan to increase its offer to cover the cost of planting 12 new trees. Company representatives countered with less than a third of what he asked.

"They'll pay for grass, they'll pay for the fence they tear down, but they told me they don't pay for trees," he said.

Southern said he plans to use the money received from the company to repair the land and the amount being paid will cover the cost, but there won't be enough to cover the cost of planting more trees.

Larry Pierce, a media representative with Kinder Morgan, said their representatives offer fair value for right of way, including the loss of timber and grass, and they always have a third-party appraisal to support their offer. The company declined to discuss terms of settlement.

After the company came back with less than a third of the money requested to replace the trees, Southern said he and his wife decided to sign the agreement to avoid a lawsuit, on the advice of his lawyer, James Crain, of the Cuero firm Crain and Sheppard.

He was therefore surprised when they were served with the notice of a lawsuit soon after filing. The company had already filed to sue for eminent domain if they had decided to fight them, he said.

Jim Crain, the father of James Crain, has decades of experience in oil and gas law, said eminent domain is used by companies to get the land they need if negotiation doesn't work. With eminent domain on their side, Crain said the companies know they will get the land. Some companies make a point of being agreeable, but some get tough when negotiating, Crain said.

"If we've done all the negotiating they can do and just can't get any agreement then they use eminent domain to put in a lawsuit over the eminent domain. The landowner can't keep them out, is what it amounts to," Crain said.

Kinder Morgan representatives could not be reached for comment regarding their use of eminent domain.

After a pipeline is put in, trees won't be allowed to grow near it again, keeping roots away from the line.

The agreement has been signed and the grove of trees will be cut down. The ground has already been staked out, and trees marked that will cut down to make way for it.

Southern said he is unhappy to see this happen, but he's trying to accept it.

Walking across the property one day at the end of December, he stopped, looking at a cluster of oak trees, slim young trees clustered around an oak that Southern believes is more than 100 years old. He reached out and ran his hand down the length of a branch.

"I'm still losing a lot of trees. We're personally not going to be hurt that bad, but the environment is. We're losing a lot of big trees," he said. "These are old oak trees and we're going to lose them."

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