Who Owns Abandoned Pipelines?

Salvaging Steel
By David Howell, Senior Right-Of-Way Agent, International Right-Of-Way Association, Houston, TX | October 2009 Vol. 236 No. 10

(Editor’s Note--Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Oildom Publishing Company or its advertisers.)

I recently received a call from a landowner on whose land a pipeline was buried. On this particular tract of land in Central Texas, the pipeline in question was only 300 feet in length. The right-of-way, or easement, was no longer mowed or otherwise maintained. Signs along the right-of-way were down or in disarray.

The landowner had done some detective work and found through the Texas Railroad Commission (TRRC) Pipeline Safety Office that the line had in fact been abandoned and in the past had been used as part of a 60-mile and longer crude line for a major pipeline company. He persisted and made contact with someone at the pipeline company who acknowledged ownership of the line even though it was deemed abandoned by state regulatory authorities. The landowner explained that he wanted to ascertain the idleness or abandonment of the pipeline because he had plans to build on that parcel, and the pipeline presence would interfere somewhat with, or at least complicate, the building process. The pipeline company indicated they would look into the matter. An environmental subcontractor then called the landowner with the pipeline company’s solution. The subcontractor had been instructed by the pipeline company to remove the pipeline if the landowner was willing to pay for the $51,000 expense of removal. The landowner then asked me what I would charge to do the same job and I told him $1,000 to $1,500 as it looked to be about a day’s worth of work.

Unfortunately, the landowner was not able to hire our company because the abandoned pipeline was still the property of the pipeline company. The issue was ownership. The pipeline company claimed ownership, but did not assume responsibility for maintenance or removal of the pipeline. For some reason, the pipeline company determined that the landowner ought to be responsible for removal expenses and that a qualified environmental company of their choosing ought to be used for the removal. Why was this? Was there an unknown environmental hazard?

A dictionary definition for abandonment means to “give up entirely.” Defined in terms of federal regulations, abandonment means “permanently removed from service.” In federal pipeline safety jargon, an abandoned pipeline is a pipeline that is “physically separated from its source of gas and is no longer maintained,” or in another federal agency glossary, “no longer connected to the system and is no longer maintained. The pipeline can be abandoned in place, by removal, or sold.” In still another set of federal guidelines, abandoned property means “a property that, because of its general disrepair or lack of activity, a reasonable person could believe that there is intent on the part of the current owners to surrender their rights to the property.” All of these definitions apply to gas and hazardous liquid pipelines that are interstate and fall under federal jurisdiction.

However, there are no guidelines for abandoned crude oil pipelines that fall under the jurisdiction of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and, presumably, the agencies that have succeeded to that federal agency’s role since it was abolished in 1995, as common carriers.