The relationship between pipelines and land is a central point of discussion whenever pipelines are in the headlines. Those who oppose pipelines may argue that pipelines infringe on private land, and those in favor of pipelines may point to the legal process designed to protect private citizens’ land from being used without their consent.

While there is stasis in the argument of land use, many may need more information to fully understand the relationship pipelines have to the land they use.

On an average drive around town, above-ground infrastructure such as telephone wires, train tracks, and roadways can be seen everywhere you look. Take a closer look and you’ll recognize that underground infrastructure is everywhere too. Under federal law, pipeline paths are required to be marked in a manner that accurately identifies the pipeline’s path. These markers are not only a practical safety measure, but also a way to identify the intertwining of infrastructure.

Pipelines obtain the land they occupy through use of rights-of-way. A right-of-way is a contract that establishes a party’s right to use and pass through land owned by another. Other infrastructure components such as roads and rail tracks also use rights-of-way.

The typical form of a right-of-way is an easement, which grants an operator the right to use another’s land to construct and operate a utility. A transmission line running over private property has permission to be there, and the power company has limited, but legitimate, rights to access the land for maintenance. Many times, transmission lines and their towering infrastructure cuts through a clearing of trees in a long strip called a utility corridor. Concurrent use of a corridor allows many utilities to share the same space, which means they do not have to infringe on other private lands.

Pipelines often exist concurrently with other infrastructure by using their existing rights-of-way, thus the commonality of seeing pipelines run alongside highways, neighborhood streets, train tracks, power lines, and other above-ground infrastructure components.

There are a few reasons the pipelines use existing easements:

First, it’s practical. Using land that is already being used for infrastructure limits using additional land solely for pipelines. It allows the consolidation of infrastructure to land that already exists for that purpose.

Second, it is safer. If pipelines are already in an existing utility corridor, they are safer than if they are alone underneath a field or community. Excavation damage is a leading cause of pipeline damage, but few excavation projects take place at the foot of a railroad track or underneath high voltage power lines.

Third, it’s easiest. It limits the use of private citizens’ land, which inherently means less contract negotiations and additional legal processes. To obtain an easement, pipeline companies have options: buying the right-of-way outright from a landowner or negotiating contracts with the landowner.

If negotiations fail, pipeline companies can work to exercise eminent domain, which is the government’s right to use private property for public use, as articulated in a variety of ways depending on the state. These options require a combination of money and time, especially when encountering legal battles.

Due to these factors, developers attempt to design a path with the least impact on landowners, so it is not uncommon for companies to even add length to their pipelines in an effort to use existing easements instead of using someone’s land.

A comprehensive understanding of pipelines and their relationship to land is crucial in forming an opinion about the practical uses of pipelines, their impact on the environment, and their relationship with private citizens.

A knowledge of pipelines’ land use is needed to contribute to this comprehensive understanding. Aii encourages you to look around on your next commute to work or the grocery store. See if you can identify pipelines markers, or even spray paint markings that identify underground utilities. Once you begin to recognize this, you’ll begin to recognize that infrastructure is everywhere, and oftentimes use the same stretches of land.


Written by John Cassibry, Media Coordinator


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.