The North Dakota landowners who are fighting the selling of an easement to the Sandpiper oil pipeline have lost a battle in district court.

A North Dakota district judge ruled that the North Dakota Pipeline Company has a right to the property through eminent domain, finding that the pipeline will serve a public use.

James and Krista Botsford, of Wausau, Wis., had been fighting the proposed $2.6 billion pipeline slated to go through a swath of farmland that they own west of the city of Grand Forks. The couple said they oppose the pipeline on principle, feeling society should move away from oil dependency and toward renewable resources. They also argued that an oil pipeline to move a private company's product shouldn't qualify for eminent domain, saying it would be of no service to property owners.

But Judge Debbie Kleven disagreed, finding the public will be entitled to access the pipeline at prices set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. All potential shippers had the opportunity to sign transport agreements during an open enrollment period, the judge pointed out, and those who chose not to sign up can still use the pipeline subject to those federally approved rates.

The pipeline is a direct benefit to the people of North Dakota because "any citizen has a right to transport their oil," Kleven found.

An Enbridge Energy statement said the company appreciates the judge's careful consideration. "Setting the Order aside, our goal is to make every reasonable attempt to work with landowners and other project stakeholders. We are committed to having positive relationships not only with landowners but also with the communities in which we operate."

The Botsfords couldn't be reached for comment, but their attorney said they may appeal.

"James and Krista Botsford wanted their day in court to make their argument," said attorney Derrick Braaten, of Bismarck, N.D. "This is sort of short-circuiting that."

The North Dakota Pipeline Company, a joint venture between Enbridge and a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corp., has approached 799 landowners for easements in North Dakota, and the Botsfords' case is the only one the company expected to go to court, a spokeswoman said last month. The company has completed more than 95 percent of the easement agreements it needs with private landowners along the proposed 612-mile route through North Dakota and Minnesota. The line is slated to run from the Bakken to Superior, Wis., where oil can then be shipped to other points.

Typically, the company seeks a 25-foot buffer on either side of the pipeline. Farmland could still be used over the pipeline, but structures or trees wouldn't be allowed on the right of way.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission approved the pipeline project last summer.

The regulatory process isn't as far along in Minnesota, where an administrative law judge in April endorsed the line's proposed route and the state Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to take a key vote on it Friday. Three state agencies and others are imploring regulators to look harder at a different route to cross Minnesota farther south than the proposed route through a region covered with wetlands and lakes.

Pipeline opponents argue that they pose environmental hazards with leaks and spills. Advocates argue that transporting oil underground is safer than shipping by rail.

In the Botsfords' case, the judge left open the question of proper compensation to the couple for the swath of farmland. Braaten said he anticipates the couple will still go to trial on that matter.

Before taking the couple to court for eminent domain, the pipeline company had offered escalating amounts, from about $25,000 to about $50,000, James Botsford has said.