With oil and natural gas companies installing miles and miles of pipelines through pastures, farm land and grazing areas in the West and Midwest, ranching operations can be disrupted and weeds can proliferate in rights of way.
“It’s certainly a problem. It’s almost inevitable. When ground is disturbed, weeds are the first things that want to come up. It’s a bit of an ongoing battle,” Jim Magagna, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, told the Western Livestock Journal.
When landowners negotiate rights of way with pipeline companies, it’s important for them to get strong language included to ensure the companies will deal with weeds and other ongoing problems, Magagna said.
Long-term liability can be a problem for future generations if original companies are sold, go out of business, are merged or go bankrupt, he noted. “It could collapse on grandchildren in 75 years.”
Properly managed grazing is an effective way to keep weeds under control, he said. Specific weeds vary by area, climate and soil conditions.
“We are fortunate in Wyoming because historically we haven’t had much cheat grass,” Magagna said, noting sheep and goats can effectively consume Leafy Spurge.
While larkspur is toxic to cattle, it is not to sheep, but it is increasing as flocks decrease, he said, estimating there are 38,000 miles of pipeline in Wyoming. Magagna works out of Cheyenne, but runs a ranch in western Wyoming between Rock Springs, Pinedale and Lander.
“With that volume of pipelines, there are going to be problems. It’s inevitable. For the most part, relations tend to be pretty good for companies that originally own the pipelines,” Magagna said.
Seven different agencies in Wyoming have responsibility over pipelines and “that becomes a maze.” While the Cowboy State’s abundance of natural resources is a huge blessing, it also creates a lot of challenges, Magagna said.
Bryan Nicholas, who runs bred heifers on 1,480 leased acres in Wyoming next to the South Dakota border where his ranch is, spent time Wednesday, June 18, with a Colorado contractor who will bring a crew in this week to spray weeds that have cropped up where a pipeline runs through his property.
“We just drove around, and I showed him how bad the weeds are,” Nicholas said, noting Scotch Thistle, Hound’s Tongue, Mullen and Canadian Thistle are among the noxious weeds flourishing where the pipeline has been installed.
Last year the weeds were not a problem, but increased moisture since last fall has caused them to sprout in abundance this year, making a perfect windrow along the pipeline’s route.
“Any time you disturb native soil and root stuff around that has been lying dormant, you’re going to get weeds,” Nicholas said, mentioning he understands there are contract provisions requiring the pipeline company to spray and control the weeds.
“I’m still trying to farm and get cows to the high country. I don’t have time to do it. … Scotch Thistle you just don’t kill in a year.”
Nicholas commended the workers for doing a wonderful job installing the pipeline and the company’s quick response in dealing with the weeds.
“They’re trying their best.
I know a lot of people don’t like the pipeline, but if it makes energy costs go down by getting more oil to this part of the country, so be it,” Nicholas said.
Maxine Ripley and her husband Claire have ranched 53 years on property that was homesteaded by his grandfather near Aladdin, WY, since 1883. “We still have cattle and are leasing hay to a neighbor,” she told WLJ.
The Ripleys were among about 120 Wyoming landowners representing about 160 of 305 miles of an ONEOK natural gas liquids pipeline in eastern Wyoming. They banded together to form Progressive Pathways LLC, to collectively negotiate with ONEOK, a large Tulsa, OK-based diversified energy company that installed the line last fall.
“It’s in and functioning. It is what it is. We aren’t having any problems,” she said, adding a valve also was installed that the Ripleys did not expect. “This is all new to us. That’s why we formed a limited liability company. For us, it was a really good way to go.”
Included in the negotiated contract with the pipeline company is a provision for weed control, Mrs. Ripley said. “We are covered in many areas we never would have been if we did it on our own.”
Not everyone impacted by the pipeline joined Progressive Pathway, which is now working on drafting bonding legislation for further legal protection in the event the pipeline is abandoned. Those individuals had to deal with the threat of eminent domain on their own.
Donley Darnell has five different pipelines running through his property near Newcastle, WY, which he has been working since 1971.
“For the most part, I don’t object to a pipeline. I’d lot rather have a pipeline than a power line,” he told WLJ, explaining such a project can be an unfunded liability because if a property owner damages the pipeline, the company that owns it can sue.
Progressive Pathway members got a much better deal working with ONEOK than they would have individually, he said, commending ONEOK’s willingness to negotiate with ranchers and other property owners. “They can really play hardball because they do have the right of eminent domain,” he said of oil and gas companies.
Darnell praised the agreement for including weed control and reclamation provisions. The ONEOK pipeline has a 75-foot right of way— 50 feet permanent, 25 feet temporary. The rights of way on property owned by people who would not participate with Progressive Pathways had to be condemned by the company.
Labor-intensive pipeline installations can be quite disruptive to farm and ranch operations, Darnell said. ONEOK spent eight or nine months on his property with heavy machinery. “For us, there was not very much impact on cattle. They only went through one pasture. … After it’s all done, it’s pretty quiet.”
Robert Clarillos, Phoenixbased Administrative Manager for the National Association of Pipeline Safety Representatives (NAPSR), said federal and state codes regulating pipelines do not really address clearing rights of way or weed control.
Most companies regularly maintain pipeline rights of way so they can inspect the pipelines for corrosion, leaks or other safety hazards, using heavy duty weed killers and brush hogs. “They all do a pretty good job of keeping the rights of way clear,” Clarillos said.
While quite a few states have additional pipeline regulations, none address weeds per se, he told WLJ, but the federal government and states have reacted to isolated incidents with natural gas or hazardous liquids with increased inspections. Most companies have their own internal checks and audits.
“Anything hazardous has to be repaired immediately,” Clarillos stressed, also emphasizing that oil and gas companies maintain good relationships with farmers and ranchers when their transmission lines cross various states.
Original pipeline safety regulations were promulgated from about 1969-1970, and by the mid-1980s, inspection responsibilities were delegated to states, he said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent