Protesters for and against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline before a Nebraska… (Nati Harnik / Associated…)
The on-again, off-again Keystone XL pipeline gained new traction in Nebraska on Wednesday.
State legislators authorized the state Department of Environmental Quality to begin evaluating options for a new route outside the sensitive Nebraska Sandhills, the marshy hills and grasslands that lie atop the nation’s most important agricultural aquifer.
Critics of the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, say the legislation amounts to a rubber stamp for TransCanada. The Canadian company is maneuvering to build the $7-billion pipeline, and the project's political travails have become a poster child for the nation's energy woes.
The bill, passed on a 44-5 vote, sidesteps an earlier law adopted in a special session of the Legislature only last fall. That measure requires most new oil pipelines to undergo a rigorous review process through the publicly elected Public Service Commission.
The new measure instead allows the Department of Environmental Quality to study the route. It also allows the governor — who has already said he wants the pipeline to go forward, as long as it avoids the Sandhills — to decide whether to approve or deny it.
Gov. Dave Heineman is expected to sign the bill into law, though opponents already are considering the possibility of constitutional challenges.
“It’s crystal clear to us that the senators who voted for this wanted to rubber-stamp a route for TransCanada, and make it as quick and easy as possible for TransCanada to get their route approved, even before they have a federal permit,” Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, a citizens group fighting the pipeline, said in an interview.
She said the bill would allow TransCanada to acquire rights of way for the pipeline from reluctant ranchers through eminent domain once the governor approved the new route.
“We thought the senators worked for the citizens of Nebraska, not a foreign corporation, but clearly we were wrong,” she said.
Legislators said they were forced to act after political maneuvering in Washington threw the initial process -- on which the special-session legislation last fall was based -- into confusion.
Nebraska officials, they said, had been poised to launch studies of an alternative route around the Nebraska Sandhills, as directed by the Obama administration, when Republicans in Congress threatened to push the pipeline forward without the route review. The president, in response, rejected TransCanada’s permit application outright, sending the whole process back to square one.
“It’s a political fight right now. I doubt if anybody cares about the oil,” state Sen. Ken Haar said at a committee hearing on the bill in February.
State Sen. Jim Smith, who sponsored the bill, said at the hearing: “This is certainly not an attempt ... at fixing what is going on in Washington. This is simply what we're trying to do to make certain that Nebraska, through the process that was established in the special session, is able to adequately ... review all potential sites and [make] certain those sites work for Nebraska.”
TransCanada needs a permit from the U.S. government to build the full pipeline because it crosses the Canadian border. But in the meantime the company is proceeding -- and it has Obama’s endorsement to do so -- with planning for the southern portion, between Oklahoma and south Texas.
Company spokesman Shawn Howard told the Los Angeles Times that he expected the company would be “in a position to discuss” a new route that would avoid the Nebraska Sandhills “fairly soon.”
To proceed, TransCanada will have to apply once again for a federal permit and undergo a full federal environmental review. But pipeline supporters hope that the state review now authorized in Nebraska will give that process a head start.
“We appreciate the strong support of the Nebraska Legislature in passing this important bill that now allows the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to resume its review and oversight of route selection for the Keystone XL pipeline within the state,” TransCanada said in a statement.
The new bill “puts the power for final route selection in Nebraska back in the hands of Nebraskans, regardless of what takes place at the federal level," the statement added.
Ken Winston of the Sierra Club said provisions sidestepping review by the Public Service Commission were added late in the process -- in one case only last week -- without opportunity for public comment.
“Suddenly there’s an announcement that there’s agreement among the senators for another amendment. They come back at noon, there’s an entirely new amendment with new subject matter that no one has seen before in the public, and within a half an hour it was adopted,” he told The Times.
“We think this process is contaminated because of the fact the governor has already said he wants the pipeline built as soon as possible,” Winston said. “We don’t see how there can be an independent analysis of the route.”
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