Public hearings kick off over pipeline regulation

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November 7th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – Hearings on legislation to regulate oil pipelines began in the special session of the Legislature on Monday, with pleas for action running into arguments that none is needed.

A crowd filled the Capitol hearing room and overflowed into another as the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee began its hearings. The first bill up was a proposal by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton. She wants to give the Nebraska Public Service Commission authority to approve or disapprove proposed pipeline routes. With TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline up for federal approval, Dubas said it’s essential for the state to act.

Sen. Annette Dubas' proposal to give pipeline siting authority to the Nebraska Public Service Commission was the first of five up for debate. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

“We cannot leave this special session without enacting effective and constitutional legislation regarding the routing of oil pipelines in our state,” Dubas said.

The hearing was structured so that supporters of Dubas’ legislation all testified before opponents were heard. But in a press conference beforehand, opponents previewed their arguments. Among them was Robert Jones, TransCanada’s vice president of Keystone pipelines. Jones was asked what TransCanada would do if Dubas’ bill (LB1) passes.

“If LB1 passes as is, I would be surprised,” Jones said. “And I think it would be a hypothetical for me to answer.”

“We believe that the members of the Legislature are going to use sound reason and judgment, and they won’t be passing LB1 as it sits today,” he said.

Another opponent of the bill, Andy Black of the Association of Oil Pipelines, was more explicit. “AOPL believes any siting legislation should be prospective only,” Black said. “Bills should not affect any project that has relied upon existing state laws or been subject to extensive federal environmental review. Adopting legislation to thwart a project at the eleventh hour would be discriminatory, punitive, and vulnerable to legal challenge.”

Sen. Mark Christensen argued another pipeline already crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, and has been operating safely since 1952. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

But lawyer Alan Peterson, who wrote an opinion supporting the legislation for the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club, downplayed any possible financial consequences. “The risk in this case of losing a lawsuit doesn’t have a lot of zeros on it,” Peterson said. “I don’t think you’d lose it.”

Peterson said he doesn’t want to “get into advocacy” and that he wants to lay out the issues “fairly,” without “exaggerating, but also without underestimating.”

“Sure, there could be a lawsuit,” he said. “Possibly, you could lose. It might well be worth the fight.”
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said one pipeline has been operating across the southern portion of the state since 1952 without significant safety problems. “The Platte pipeline does cross, east to west, the full length of the Ogallala Aquifer,” he said. “And if you want to stay to the soils map, and go to Lincoln County, it’s identical to some of the areas of the Sandhills that we’re looking at here.”

Christensen said the Platte pipeline carries up to 162,000 barrels a day. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry an estimated 700,000 barrels.

Susan Seacrest, founder and former head of the Groundwater Foundation, a nonprofit educational and advocacy organization for groundwater, said that raises the stakes. “This is a very high risk operation,” she said. “It’s a very large pipeline. It’s going through a very large part of our state through an aquifer that we all agree is critically important to our identity of our state, and to who we are as a state, and to the economic future of our state.”

“I don’t think anybody could argue that the risks aren’t there,” she said. “Sen. Dubas’s bill gives us another tool in our toolbox.”

Dubas’s bill is one of five proposals that have been submitted on the pipeline issue. Hearings are scheduled to continue for the next two days.

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