LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska is again at the centre of the political debate over the Keystone XL pipeline as the company behind the project asks the State Department to pause its review of the proposal while TransCanada works with state officials to secure its preferred route.
The request marks the latest turn in the long-running battle between well-organized Nebraska landowners who oppose the pipeline and its developer. Some answers to key questions about the situation:
WHAT’S BEHIND THE DEVELOPER’S LATEST MOVE?
The move by TransCanada comes as President Barack Obama’s administration appears increasingly likely to reject the pipeline permit application before leaving office in January 2017. If granted, the company’s request could delay any decision until the next president takes office, potentially leaving the fate of the controversial project in the hands of a more supportive Republican administration.
The head of the company denied Tuesday that political motivation drove its decision.
HOW DID THIS ISSUE EMERGE?
Opposition to the pipeline within Nebraska ballooned in 2011 amid concerns that the initial route would cross the Sandhills, a region of grass-covered sand dunes with wetlands, and the Ogallala aquifer, which provides water to farms and ranches throughout the Plains.
Facing pressure to act, former Gov. Dave Heineman convened a special legislative session in late 2011 to pass new pipeline regulations. Lawmakers eventually created an application process through the Nebraska Public Service Commission, an elected five-member board that requires applicants to show that their projects serve the public’s interest.
TransCanada also agreed to move the route, despite arguing previously that the state did not have the power to regulate crude oil pipelines.
The following year, a Nebraska lawmaker who supported the pipeline pushed through legislation that gave TransCanada a second way to win approval. Instead of going through the Public Service Commission, TransCanada was allowed to submit to a review by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, an agency overseen by the governor. TransCanada chose this approach, and Heineman approved the pipeline route in 2013.
HAS NEBRASKA OPPOSITION STOPPED THE PIPELINE?
No, but by repeatedly challenging the project in court, opponents have managed to delay it for years and keep the issue in the national spotlight.
TransCanada announced last month that it was changing strategy and would reapply for route approval through the Nebraska Public Service Commission, as pipeline opponents had hoped.
Lawsuits filed by the opponents had thrown into the doubt whether the law that allows governors to approve pipelines is constitutional. Without that law, the pipeline route approved by Heineman would become invalid, and TransCanada would have been forced to apply to the Public Service Commission anyway.
WHY IS OPPOSITION STRONGEST IN NEBRASKA, OF ALL PLACES?
Despite vocal opposition in Nebraska, the state’s political leaders generally support the project. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has said the Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline in Nebraska, providing jobs and tax revenue to local governments.
Last year, 34 state lawmakers — more than two-thirds of the Legislature — signed a letter urging Obama to approve the project. The signers included 25 Republicans and nine Democrats. Polls have also shown that a majority of residents support the pipeline.
But opponents are well-organized. Leading the charge is Bold Nebraska, a group formed in 2010 with a grant from a wealthy Democratic philanthropist in Omaha.
The group’s founder, Jane Kleeb, has helped organize a coalition that includes rural landowners concerned about property rights, environmental activists and Native American tribes. Bold Nebraska regularly works with national environmental groups to fight the project.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Pipeline supporters and opponents have switched roles, in a sense.
For years, pipeline opponents repeatedly asked officials to postpone the project for more scrutiny, while company officials complained about delays and pressed for faster action. Now TransCanada is calling for a pause while opponents urge Obama to quickly deny the company’s request for a presidential permit.
Pausing the federal review for the Nebraska Public Service Commission would delay the final decision another seven to 12 months, at a minimum. The commission’s decision can also be appealed in the state courts, creating more delays.