PW exclusive: Unregistered agents pushing landowners to make way for proposed central NC gas pipeline

PW exclusive: Unregistered agents pushing landowners to make way for proposed central NC gas pipeline

- in Environment, Top Story

 

The proposed route of Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate would enter North Carolina near Eden, travel just north of Reidsville and then through northwestern Alamance County before ending near Graham. (Map: MVP Southgate)

On a recent spring afternoon, Kelly and Daniel Bollinger were checking in on one of their fields, zigzagging on foot between furrows where Daniel had just planted pine seeds. 

“There’s one,” Daniel said, pointing to a finger-size conifer that had taken root and begun to grow.

Kelly pointed to a thicket of old trees that hemmed the Bollingers’ 53-acre property. “I’ve been in these woods since I could walk,” Kelly said. “My daddy taught us to take care of the land, to show it respect.”

In the fields, corn that Daniel had sowed was peeking above the dirt. At the top of a hill, young paw-paw trees that Kelly had planted were leafing out. Down at the family’s two and a half acre pond, a goose rested on her eggs while her mate vigilantly patrolled the shoreline. 

The Bollingers, too, are guarding their property. They have posted iridescent-yellow “No Trespassing” signs on the perimeter, a warning to land agents who might try to hornswoggle them in order to access their land for the Mountain Valley Pipeline Southgate.

MVP Southgate, as it’s known, is the second such natural gas project proposed for the state. Owned by a consortium of energy and investment companies, MVP, LLC, it originates at a fracked gas facility in West Virginia and extends through Virginia before entering North Carolina. Originally, the Mountain Valley Pipeline was supposed to end in Chatham, Va. 

But earlier in April, MVP, LLC, announced it would extend the pipeline deeper into Virginia and continue through two counties in North Carolina. The pipeline would enter the state near Eden and the Dan River in Rockingham County, then continue southeast through Alamance County, terminating near Graham.

MVP Southgate is shorter — 72 miles through Rockingham and Alamance counties in the Piedmont — than the ACP, which traverses 160 miles through eastern North Carolina.

But MVP Southgate is equally controversial. The pipeline’s construction and operation could permanently damage the environment. And the heavy-handed tactics of land agents and unlicensed surveyors are equally familiar. 

Because of differing interpretations of a 2012 state law — originally written to address fracking — land agents who work for Doyle Land Services on MVP Southgate say they aren’t required to register with the NC Department of Environmental Quality. Although some land agents are allegedly intimidating, strong-arming and even deceiving property owners along the potential pipeline route, they seem to be accountable to no one.

“It’s like the Wild West,” said Therese Vick, research director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

Although the precise route hasn’t been determined, MVP Southgate would most likely plow through parts of rural Green Level, including the Bollingers’ property. That’s why Darrell Dinkler, an agent with Doyle Land Services, based in New Orleans, came calling. 

Kelly and Daniel Bollinger (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The Bollingers live off of Sandy Cross Road in Alamance County on 53 acres that Kelly’s grandfather bought 65 years ago. Her father then bought the property in 1997 and cleared part of the land with a mule. Since then, the Bollingers have built a house, grown crops, timbered and planted trees on land they plan to leave to their children.

In April, the Bollingers received a letter from MVP Southgate explaining the project and stating they would be contacted by surveyors. Shortly afterward, they received a call from a man named Darrell Dinkler. 

“’What do you think of the letter?’” Dinkler asked Daniel. 

Daniel replied: “It’s not too appealing.”

The hard sell continued. Dinkler called back several times and the sales pitch became more urgent. Maybe the pipeline wouldn’t go through the property, Dinkler told them, but only a survey crew could rule it out. He even tried appeasing them. “He said most of his surveys never materialized,” Kelly said.

Dinkler also suggested the pipeline could run through a back field, out of the way, and next to the Bollingers’ pond. “Are you talking about where we our hopes and dreams would be? Where we plan to build our retirement home?” Daniel said he told Dinkler. “We left it as ‘no.'” 

Dinkler called back again after dinnertime, asking for a detailed GIS map of the property and where the Bollingers’ future home would be. The Bollingers drew the plot on a map and emailed it to him, Daniel said. “He claimed to be doing this to ‘help us’,” Daniel told Policy Watch. “But he stated he still needed to do a survey.”

Kelly said she asked Dinkler, “’Do you own property?’ Do you want people taking your property that you have plans for?’”

Dinkler then tried to appeal to the Bollingers’ sense of duty. “This is for the people,” they said Dinkler told them. “North Carolina is for it and has deemed it necessary.”

North Carolina has not deemed it necessary; MVP Southgate hasn’t even applied for state permits. The company is only in the pre-filing period with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is in charge of determining the necessity of the project.

“We asked, ‘Can you show us what you want to do?” Kelly said. “Darrell shut down. He ended the conversation.”

The Bollingers sent Dinkler written notice denying him or any surveying team access to their property. Dinkler told them that MVP officials had instructed him not to contact them further.

***

Dinkler told Policy Watch that he is not required to register with the state’s engineering and surveying board because he is not a surveyor. Natalie Cox, spokesperson for MVP, LLC, told Policy Watch that Doyle Land Services isn’t a surveyor, either. Doyle’s general counsel did not return emails seeking clarification, but the company’s website says the firm specializes in right-of-way and land acquisition, permitting, title and GIS drafting services.”

Perhaps Doyle does not have crews on the ground, but several of the firm’s specialties overlap with those of surveyors, including title and GIS services. Doyle was licensed in North Carolina to conduct surveys. but allowed its state license to lapse in 2015. Andrew Ritter, executive director of the NC Board of Examiners of Engineering and Surveyors, confirmed that Doyle has failed to renew its surveyor’s license and cannot conduct that type of business in North Carolina.

Nonetheless, Doyle worked on land deals in the state for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. And for MVP Southgate, a business card and correspondence provided to Policy Watch by another private landowner in Alamance County showed that Doyle land agent Tina Turner had checked a box asking not for “access” to the property but a “survey.”

Informed of the discrepancy, Ritter of the Engineering and Surveying Board said his office is investigating the case. Ironically, until Doyle renews its North Carolina license, the firm is not subject to disciplinary action by the board — although the Department of Justice could pursue it.

Even if Dinkler, Turner and other Doyle representatives aren’t surveyors, they should have to register as land agents with the Department of Environmental Quality.  Since 2012, state law has required DEQ to maintained a “Registry of Landmen” (although there are a few women) for individuals involved in the energy industry.


But even as a land agent, Dinkler told Policy Watch, “it’s my understanding I don’t have to register.” He declined to answer further questions and directed all inquiries to Natalie Cox, the MVP Southgate spokesperson.

A DEQ spokesperson told Policy Watch that state geologist Ken Taylor, who was integral in crafting the law, informed the agency that land agents for pipeline projects don’t have to register with the state. The intent of the legislation, according to Taylor, said DEQ, was to create a registry for agents in the “extraction business” of fracking.

Taylor could not be reached for comment.

Vick of BREDL told the Oil and Gas Commission this week that firms were failing to appropriately register with DEQ. Commission Chairman James Womack told Policy Watch that he is looking into the statutory guidelines for registering through the state’s Landman Registry. “There appears to be some confusion about which persons are required to formally register through this medium,” Womack said.

But the law is clear: There is no distinction in requirements between land agents seeking mineral rights for fracking, for example, and those negotiating land deals for pipelines. In fact, pipelines are specifically mentioned.

The law, which is codified at N.C.G.S. 113-425, defines the term “landman” as a person that, “in the course and scope of the person’s business,” does any of the following:

  • Acquires or manages oil or gas interests
  • Performs title or contract functions related to the exploration, exploitation, or disposition of oil or gas interests
  • Negotiates for the acquisition or divestiture of oil or gas rights, including the acquisition or divestiture of land or oil or gas rights for a pipeline
  • Negotiates business agreements that provide for the exploration for or development of oil or gas.

The state, likely the Attorney General’s office, which oversees consumer protection, can fine a person or firm that “engages in any other fraud, deception, misrepresentation or knowing omission of material facts related to oil or gas interests.”

***

The pipeline’s route is not finalized, although the project is on the fast-track to operate by late 2020. Today, MVP Southgate ends its “open season,” a time when companies that want to pay for access to the natural gas can apply. Then the company will know the size of the pipeline and the number of compressor stations, which help push the gas farther down the route, it will need. Already, certain conditions of the pipeline have changed, said Emily Sutton, the Haw Riverkeeper. A compressor station has been added in Rockingham County. The diameter of the pipeline has increased from 17 and 22 inches to 24 inches.

Land agents are trying to cover areas in Alamance and Rockingham counties to account for the possible routes. “People are under the impression they can’t say no,” to the agents and surveyors, Sutton said. “You can always refuse access. The only thing that can happen is the price goes up as [MVP Southgate] gets more desperate.”

The Bollingers are among several landowners whose property could be traversed by the pipeline. Although the path has yet to be finalized, early indications show it could run not nearby, not around — but directly through — Ron Adams’s retirement home. This is the home that construction crews started this week will be finished by mid-summer.

Adams who lives in Chapel Hill, bought property adjacent to the Bollingers two years ago. After he secured the proper permits, had a road built, and paid for a well and septic system. “Sloping hills, a pond, partially wooded, partially open, lots of privacy but great neighbors, it’s what I’ve been looking for,” Adams said.

Adams said he was also approached about a survey. “It’s not set in stone,” Adams said of the route. “But I’m not going to give them access. If we fight in numbers we’ll have a stronger presence. I’m not going to tear down my house. I have a lot invested in it. I hate to see an area scarred in this way.”

He said he’s also concerned about the proximity of the pipeline to Martin Marietta’s quarry operation, just a tenth-of mile away and behind a row of trees. The company blasts just four or five times a year, Adams said, “but what happens if something shifts or moves the pipe?”

For personal and environmental reasons, the Bollingers plan to fight the pipeline. “It’s a non-renewable finite resource,” Kelly said. “I’m concerned about leaks that would affect the water and air quality, and explosions.”

“In my opinion, it’s not a necessity for the people but for the companies,” Daniel said.

In fact, the only way MVP Southgate can take private property by eminent domain is to prove that the pipeline is a public necessity. The company has not made that case, and environmental advocates would argue the gas is not needed.

If the pipeline does route through their property — after litigation, it could take years — the Bollingers could lose an acre-and-a-half to a permanent easement, and nearly three for a temporary one. Their family land would be continue to be chipped away, piece by piece. The Bollingers already have two easements on their property: One for a Duke Energy transmission line and the other for the state Department of Transportation for a dead-end road

“There’s not enough money,” to compensate for that loss, Kelly said.

“We’re not going to fold,” Daniel said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”