Nebraska Passes Legislation to Move Keystone XL Pipeline Forward

Published June 4, 2012

Nebraska’s unicameral legislature has passed a bill designed to keep alive the possible approval of the Keystone XL pipeline previously rejected by President Obama. In a bipartisan 44-5 vote, lawmakers endorsed legislation that will provide a mechanism for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) to continue the Keystone evaluation independently and collaborate with the federal government on other pipeline projects. Gov. Dave Heineman (R) signed the bill into law.

State’s Hands Were Tied

Before passage of the bill, Nebraska state officials were unable to evaluate any alternatives to the plan rejected by President Obama. In a special session in late 2011, the Nebraska legislature had agreed in a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. State Department to join Nebraska’s evaluation with the State Department’s process to avoid duplication, improve efficiency, and control costs. Once President Obama rejected the initial Keystone XL proposal, however, the Department of State stopped consideration of the plan or any alternatives. 

“We were at a standstill,” said Sen. Jim Smith (R-Papillion), who sponsored the bill. “We had to decouple us [Nebraska] from the federal government in order to review alternate routes.”

Under the new law, the NDEQ is reviewing the revised route and will hold a series of public hearings on the changes. If Gov. Heineman agrees to a new route after those reviews are complete, TransCanada is expected to seek approval for the new route from the State Department. 

Smith says the NDEQ may complete its evaluation by November. Once the governor approves a new route, TransCanada will be free to pursue its application with the State Department.

Activist Groups on the Fringe

The Nebraska Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters of Nebraska opposed the legislation, despite the bill’s overwhelming support among Democrats and Republicans alike. Smith attributes activist-group opposition to the bill to two different motives. 

“First, there is a very hard-line environmental opposition that’s not about this route but opposition to the use of fossil fuels at all. They won’t support any route or any alternative at any time,” Smith said. 

“The second level of opposition came from Nebraskans that genuinely love their land and are concerned about reclamation and land being left as well as it was before the process,” Smith observed. “I think those concerns have been reflected in the alternative plan introduced by TransCanada since passing our legislation.” 

Since the new law took effect, TransCanada has submitted an alternate route for the Nebraska portion of the pipeline that would avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region, cited by President Obama in his final rejection of the permit application. The new route also avoids all areas of the state where groundwater is less than five feet below the surface.

Heineman Signals New Support

Heineman, who opposed the initial Keystone XL proposal, has been urging Obama to approve the revised plans.

“Nebraska will move forward on the review process of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and any future pipelines that will create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil,” said Heineman in a press statement after signing the bill into law.

Brian Fojtik ([email protected]) is president of Brownstone Communications.