- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A three-member Iowa board has no authority to grant access to private property for the construction of a proposed oil pipeline, landowners opposed to the project argue in a lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed last month in district court in Cherokee County says the Iowa Utilities Board has no legal authority to give developers such as Dakota Access LLC the right to use private property for the pipeline. The lawsuit said Dakota Access is not an Iowa utility, according to state law, so it can’t even utilize such options.

Dakota Access, a unit of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, wants to build a pipeline that would transport crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields through South Dakota and Iowa to a distribution center in Illinois. The company is seeking regulatory approval from several agencies, including the Iowa Utilities Board.

The board has been tasked with determining whether Dakota Access can secure a permit that gives it the right to use private land if some landowners refuse to allow it. The board has issued a general timeline for making a decision in the case, and it’s expected at the end of year. Critics have argued the pipeline has little financial benefits for Iowa residents and carries potentially serious environmental consequences.

The lawsuit on behalf of three landowners focuses on the issue of authority, according to Bill Hanigan, an attorney for the plaintiffs. He claims representatives for Dakota Access have given conflicting information to landowners about the value of their land and whether it will diminish if they don’t sign voluntary agreements with the company now.

“Our clients want to know whether there is a level playing field. Is this at arm’s length? Or does Dakota Access have a hammer?” he said. “If they’ve got a hammer then we probably won’t resist forever, because there’s no point. We think that under the law they do not. But we need a court to confirm that.”

The board filed a motion Friday to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that it can’t be sued over the issue while the agency is still determining a final decision over the permit. Donald Tormey, a spokesman for the board, said they do not comment on pending litigation, but referenced a question-and-answer document that states the board bases its authority to offer such property rights on state law. A “person” seeking a permit to use private land does not have to be a public utility but must serve a public purpose, according to the document.

Hanigan counters that public purpose argument, arguing that crude oil is not consumable until further refined and there are no oil refineries in Iowa.

Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Dakota Access, said in an email that providing greater access to domestically produced crude oil benefits all Americans regardless of where they live. When asked about the allegations that landowners are being pressured to sign land agreements now, she said it is the company’s policy to treat all landowners fairly and respectfully.

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