Pipeline regs swiftly signed into law

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November 22nd, 2011

Lincoln, NE – Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman swiftly signed two bills into law today that will regulate the location of oil pipelines in the state. Now comes the first test of the legislation.

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Gov. Heineman swiftly signed two bills into law that will regulate oil pipelines in the state. (Photo courtesy State of Nebraska)

There was no debate and no opposition as the Legislature passed two bills earlier Tuesday. One is designed to find a new route for TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline that avoids the Sandhills. It requires a new environmental impact statement and approval by the governor. The other bill sets up a process for the Public Service Commission to approve the proposed routes of future pipelines. At a signing ceremony, it was all smiles as Sen. Chris Langemeier, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, distributed praise for what the Legislature accomplished in its special session.

“I want to thank everybody that participated, and thank you governor,” Langemeier said. “It’s been a hard 15 days, and we got through it and the (Unicameral) should be a model to all politics around the world that we can solve major problems in Nebraska in a pretty timely manner.”

At a news conference a few minutes later, pipeline opponent Randy Thompson was a little less diplomatic.
“I’d very much like to be a chiropractor in Lincoln tomorrow morning,” Thompson said. “Because I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of backslapping and chest pounding and people stepping forward to take credit for what has happened in the special session. But let’s make it perfectly clear who is responsible: the citizens of Nebraska.”

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline has prompted a storied saga, as protests erupted in Nebraska over the pipeline's route, and lawmakers pondered ways to move it away from the Sandhills. (Photo credit NET News)

The day’s events marked the end of an extraordinary chapter in the saga of the controversial pipeline, which is to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas. The proposed route in Nebraska through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer raised concerns about leaks and damage to the land among some environmentalists and landowners.

But last spring, bills to control pipeline routing remained bottled up in the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee. Over the summer, as suggestions surfaced to call a special session, Gov. Dave Heineman remained reluctant, citing a lack of support. But as opposition to the proposed route mounted, the governor changed his mind and called a special session.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department announced it would delay its permitting decision, citing environmental concerns in Nebraska. Finally last week, legislative Speaker Mike Flood brokered a deal to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills in exchange for an expedited state environmental review.

Ron Kaminski of the Laborers International Union local 1140, which supports the pipeline for the construction jobs it will bring, said he’s optimistic.

“I just hope the state — the governor and the Department of Environmental Quality – get to work on this as soon as possible, so we can get this approved by the state, hopefully May of next year, so we can start construction next summer.”

The U.S. State Department has said it won’t decide on a permit for the overall project until the first quarter of 2013 at the earliest. But TransCanada officials have said they hope that can be speeded up. Spokesman Shawn Howard said getting the proposed rerouting approved by Nebraska is the first step.

“Now that the laws have been signed into effect ,we can start,” Howard said. “I’m sure there will be phone calls that start today to arrange meetings.”

For some pipeline opponents, getting the route out of the Sandhills is triumph enough. But others like Jane Kleeb, executive director of the pipeline opposition group BOLD Nebraska, have a broader definition what would constitute victory. “I think for many of us that’s always been a dual track,” Kleeb said. “It’s one, having comprehensive, state-based regulations that not only protect our land and water but also protect landowners. And then, on a federal level, it means stopping this pipeline.”

With thirst for new sources of oil and jobs weighing against concern about carbon emissions and oil leaks, the battle over the pipeline will continue in the coming year.

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