A Commons Mistake: Romney Confuses Public Roads with Private Pipelines

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On the Commons

A Commons Mistake: Romney Confuses Public Roads with Private Pipelines

His comments on Hoover Dam, Interstate highways and the Keystone XL pipeline deserve scrutiny

After winning the Illinois primary, Mitt Romney delivered a victory speech in which he deplored America’s lost “can do spirit”. Unsurprisingly, he blamed it on government. If elected he promised, “We’re going to get government out of the way”. Then he offered a few examples of what he meant. “We once built the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. Now we can’t even build a pipeline.”

Romney liked the line, and the thunderous applause it generated so much that a few weeks later at a Tea Party gathering in Pennsylvania he used it again.

Rachel Maddow and many others have pointed out the fundamental flaw in Romney’s argument. The government built both the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system. Republican administrations championed both projects. They were testaments to the can-do spirit of government— grand collective undertakings that benefited generations to come.

How grand? The Hoover Dam cost the equivalent of $24 billion in today’s dollars, notes Steve Benen. Congress appropriated $25 billion to build the first 40,000 miles of the interstate highway system, equivalent to $830 billion in today’s dollars.

Few have commented on Romney’s second sentence. “Now we can’t even build a pipeline”. Having cited two examples that actually contradicted his thesis that government lacks the can do spirit, he offered an example of how government is preventing the private sector from having the can do spirit that may be even more problematic.

Romney, as everyone in his audience and most of the country knew, was talking about the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama had delayed construction while a detailed environmental impact study is completed, generating universal Republican outrage.

The Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system were built by the people for the people. They were and are public assets, huge public undertakings that have generated huge public benefits. The Keystone XL pipeline is proposed by a private company for private gain. The private company insists it has the right to seize private land to enhance the value of its private asset.

If completed, the pipeline will transport crude oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the United States and to Gulf Coast refineries where it will then be exported. Demonstrating that private sector can-do spirit Romney so exalts, TransCanada, the company that owns the pipeline, is continuing to acquire land to construct the pipeline despite Obama’s decision. “We don’t need a presidential permit in order for us to obtain the easements that we need for the right of way for this project,” says TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha.

Apparently, the foreign corporation also doesn’t think it needs permission of the landowners to move ahead. When some farmers refused to sell their land, TransCanada began the process of seizing their private property. Which has led many of Mitt Romney’s most ardent supporters to rebel.

A month before Romney’s speech this major story appeared in the Texas Tribune, “Keystone Pipeline Sparks Property Rights Backlash”. The reporter conveyed the anger of Julia Trigg Crawford who manages a 600-acre farm in Lamar County that’s been in her family since 1948. “I’m just an angry steward of the land. A foreign-owned, for-profit, non-permitted pipeline has taken a Texan’s land. Doesn’t sound right, does it?”

Does it? The Texas Constitution requires that eminent domain, that is, the right to seize private property, can only be exercised for “public use.” In the past courts have routinely dismissed challenges to pipelines by landowners.

But last year the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a company that wanted to build a CO2 pipeline for its own use was a private carrier and couldn’t use eminent domain to get an easement on a Houston-area rice farm. In his opinion for the majority, Justice Don Willett wrote that “even when the Legislature grants certain private entities ‘the right and power of eminent domain,’ the overarching constitutional rule controls: no taking of property for private use.”

“The ruling sent shockwaves through the oil and gas lobby, which is now urging the Supreme Court to rehear the case,” the Texas Tribune observes.

Ms. Crawford successfully obtained a rare restraining order from the courts that halted any further encroachment on her land until questions surrounding TransCanada’s right to condemn her property are resolved.

The case is going to court. There will be a hearing in June and possibly a trial in July. I hope they are televised. Texas’ two Republican Senators and its Republican Governor have come out against the Crawford Family

The Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system were built by the people for the people. They were and are public assets, huge public undertakings that have generated huge public benefits. The Keystone XL pipeline is proposed by a private company for private gain. The private company insists it has the right to seize private land to enhance the value of its private asset.

Perhaps an enterprising reporter on the campaign trail could ask Mitt Romney if he would like to revisit his comments?

David Morris

David Morris is Vice President and director of the New Rules Project at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which is based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. focusing on local economic and social development.

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