Let me say this up front. I've got nothing against pipelines. They run all over, and until we find some way to greatly decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, they are a sticky fact of life. Even if we could block them, there's nothing to keep the vast amount of oil from being moved across our state in trucks and train cars, which come with risk too.
Like most of you, I've listened to the arguments from both sides in the Bakken Pipeline proposal. In fact, we've had the corporate leadership of Dakota Access pipeline project in our humble office, and gave them full opportunity to explain why their project is necessary.
We've listened to opponents as well, printed letters, and we were the only media to show up when a town hall meeting on the issue was held in Storm Lake with a leading environmental activist. Most of the landowners attending said little - they are quiet Iowa farmers who would rather listen and learn than make speeches. I do not know their thoughts, nor would I pretend to.
A few were emotional about what stands to happen to their farms, and we listened to them carefully, for they will be among the ones most directly impacted.
Ultimately, I think, this issue is not about oil at all.
It is about people's rights to their own property.
You've heard the term "eminent domain" bandied about, never really explained. Eminent domain is supposed to be a concept of "the greater good," so one or a few disgruntled landowners can't stand in the way of vast project that will improve quality of life for the greater public.
For instance, if a road were being build because of a need for better access and safety for all, and just about everyone agreed to the overriding need, except for one of two people who block right of way, it could be determined that the greater public good outweighs the opinion of a very small percentage of landowners, though they would supposedly be fairly compensated. People smarter than I, apparently, are capable of putting a price on opinions.
But an oil pipeline isn't a road, is it? It isn't a main for safe water to serve area homes, or a prairieland park to be preserved for local children to explore.
It isn't even a utility, really, in the service to public sense, which makes it odd that the Iowa Utilities Board would have power to grant the taking of land for the construction.
The pipeline is a private, for-profit enterprise by a recently formed corporate entity in Texas to move oil from the Bakken fields in South Dakota all the way through Iowa to a depot in Illinois. There it would be sent on, presumably east or perhaps even to the Gulf to be shipped out of country.
It doesn't stand to benefit Iowa, particularly, other than the payments made to farmers who agree to let it be buried on their land. In simplest form, it is a trade of dollars for risk. Pipes leak, sooner or later. Is it a good deal? Again, I'd best leave that for wiser heads.
For the people who sign agreements with the company, more power to 'em. It's a free world and it's their land. They have every right, and the company has a right to use land that is voluntarily made available to it.
But that's not our issue. Some landowners don't want a pipeline. And they stand to be forced to have it run through their farms, through long established tile systems, through or under streams, and local roads. This is not a few people, or a handful of acres.
No matter how I turn this, and I've tried, I can't find any way that it is right, or sensible, to seize numerous people's rights to self-determination on their own property.
One man simply wanted to keep the pipeline inspectors from tramping around on his farm at will, which last I knew, was called trespassing. A court ruled that he can't throw people off his property for preparing a project that is not yet state-approved, that he doesn't want and will not agree with.
Wait now. That's starting to trample on some very basic American rights, isn't it?
I wouldn't want to be told who could and could not tromp around in my back yard. It's not the government's property, or the court's property. As long as I pay my property tax, it's mine. If someone plans on running some big project through your garden, or driveway, or through where your house stands, without getting your approval, you'd be one mad son of a gun. And you'd have a right.
If this project is as great and foolproof and lucrative as its planners claim, why would 500 landowners not be signing on?
A pipeline is free enterprise, and that is very American too. If it can find a path where it can fairly obtain the land or land use rights it needs, and meets all the safety and environmental codes, have at it. It's surely not the first or only energy-related buried line to run about.
But until then, I have to conclude that the company, and the state utilities board, has no right to forcibly seize large numbers of acres from large numbers of owners who don't want the pipeline through their property.
I spent a little time tonight reading about a few of the people who are fighting a pipeline on their farms.
Verdell Johnson, grew up a farm in Cherokee County, and has most of his 79 years farming there, and raising three children with his wife, Marian. A few years ago, Marian was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Verdell is a veteran and has served on several committees, boards and ag-related groups over the years. The man loves that land.
Dick and Judy Lamb were hometown sweethearts and got married in 1972. Judy is a retired RN, Dick is a retired educational psychologist; both are Vietnam veterans. They have raised kids, and have several grandkids. Their 300-acre farm near Ames was bought and tamed by Dick's grandfather in the 1870's. They want the family farm intact. Won't sell at any price.
These are not wild-eyed activists, or tree-hugging hippies, not progress-haters. They are farmers who just want a powerful corporation to leave them alone.
You'll make up your own mind, as well you should. That's what it's all about. But I believe I will side with people having their own free will on their own land.
And if you would back a pipeline company and state executives seizing land from Verdell, or Dick and Judy, saying that their rights don't matter compared to a high-dollar corporate project, consider:
If eminent domain can trample their rights, what's going to stop someone from taking your yard, or your house, someday, whether you like it or not?