Nebraska Legislature plans special session on Keystone XL project
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman has called the Legislature into special session next week to address growing concerns over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would carry tar sands oil across one of the Midwest's most important aquifers.
The action throws a potentially significant new stumbling block into a Canadian company's hope of winning approval before the end of the year for the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would move diluted bitumen -- often heavy in sulfur, nickel and lead -- from Alberta to the Texas coast.
"The key decision for current pipeline discussions is the permitting decision that will be made by the Obama administration, which is why I have urged President Obama and Secretary of State [Hilary] Clinton to deny the permit," the governor, a Republican, said in a statement Monday.
"However, I believe Nebraskans are expecting our best efforts to determine if alternatives exist. Therefore, I will be calling a special session of the Nebraska Legislature to have a thoughtful and thorough public discussion about alternative solutions that could impact the route of the pipeline in a legal and constitutional manner."
When they convene Nov. 1, Nebraska legislators could try to assert legal authority over routing the pipeline. As currently proposed, the pipeline would cross the eastern edge of the Nebraska Sandhills, one of the state's ecological gems, and the Ogallala aquifer, one of the region's key sources of water for drinking and irrigation.
Pipeline opponents hope lawmakers also will attempt to impose stricter conditions on such matters as cleanup in the event of an oil spill.
"Nebraska has [theoretically] the authority to route oil pipelines. We have the authority to require bond for road repairs. We have the authority to make sure landowners are not liable for oil spills. The list is long on what our state can do to ensure our land and water are safe," Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, which is fighting the pipeline, said in a statement. "Because right now, in our state, my hairdresser has more regulations to follow than oil pipelines."
Legislative sources told The Times that Heineman has not yet made clear how broad or aggressive a position he will push the Legislature to adopt -- suggesting that the door is open for individual lawmakers to propose and discuss specific legislation, though Heineman will likely weigh in.
"The worst thing that could happen now is the governor calls a special session, and they don't deal with the route," Kleeb said in an interview.
"Just bringing the Legislature together doesn't accomplish anything unless the Legislature follows through, and by that I mean they take the action that a majority of Nebraskans want them to take, which is to reroute the pipeline outside of the Sandhills," Ken Winston, the Sierra Club's representative in Nebraska, told The Times.
Kleeb said pipeline opponents worry that the Legislature could pass a bill granting the state Public Services Commission authority to oversee the pipeline, as it presently oversees gas pipelines, but with no new legal prohibition against building oil pipelines in environmentally sensitive areas or crucial waterways.
Officials at TransCanada, which hopes to win authority from the U.S. State Department to build the pipeline, have said that moving the structure outside the Sandhills could simply lead to worse environmental problems elsewhere -- or make it impossible to pick up and deliver oil produced in Montana and North Dakota.
"The three-year final Environmental impact Statement concluded Keystone XL would have minimal impact on the environment. Fourteen routes were analyzed, eight that would impact Nebraska. The pipeline takes the safest route -- physically and environmentally," TransCanada said in a statement.
"By asking us to reroute, what people are asking us to do is ignore the rules we are required to follow, ignore the various reviews conducted under federal laws, which are specific to the route. You cannot redraw a pipeline route on a map and then tell the [State Department] and other agencies that it’s the same thing."
State Sen. Mike Flood, the Republican speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, initially had not supported a special session; he has warned that the state may not have legal authority to control a pipeline whose regulation is largely in federal hands.
"This issue has never been about whether the state has a legitimate role in protecting our groundwater and natural resources. The question, for me, has been how to exercise that role within the parameters of the law. A siting law that is thrown out by the courts has no lasting impact," Flood said in a statement Monday.
But he said he would welcome the governor's call to convene the Legislature and is committed to fully considering all proposed legislation.
"If a solution is to be found that does more than present a short-term, feel-good 'Band-Aid' to the legitimate concerns about the proposed route, I will carefully consider and thoughtfully act on such a bill," he said.
Todd Cone, a rancher near Atkinson, Neb., who fears the region's delicate grasslands could be ruined by an oil spill, said in an interview that the mood among ranchers in central Nebraska has turned more optimistic with the governor's announcement.
"Right now, we feel like we have some hope, where before two days ago, it was like, throw in the towel -- it's so corrupt, and the governor wasn't going to do anything, and we had nowhere to turn."
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Demonstrators take a stand against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline protest outside the law offices of Nebraska Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, in Norfolk, Neb., on Oct. 11, while Alex Pourbaix, president of TransCanada Corp.'s energy and oil pipelines, held a meeting inside with state senators. Credit: Nati Harnik/Associated Press