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Nebraska Approves Keystone XL Pipeline, Despite Opposition

Pipeline opponents have 30 days to appeal the decision

Less than five minutes into this morning’s meeting of the Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC), regulators voted three to two to approve the “mainline alternative route” of the Keystone XL pipeline. And with that, the last hurdle facing Canadian company TransCanada was cleared leaving, paving the way for construction of the controversial pipeline. Nebraska was the last state reviewing the pipeline – the other states through which KXL will pass have already approved the project.

 SOLAR XL #2Photo by Alex Matzke / Bold NebraskaIn September, Bold Nebraska and Pipeline Fighters installed solar panels in the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, on Diana and "Stix" Steskal's Prairierose Farm near Atkinson, NE.

Before the vote, Nebraska District 2 Commissioner Crystal Rhoades spoke for two minutes against the pipeline route citing six main areas of concern including the fragile ecosystem through which the pipeline would travel, the lack of positive economic impact for the state, and the lack of consultation with the Native American tribes in the region.

TransCanada submitted three routes for approval including the company’s preferred route as well as a mainline alternative route and a Sandhills route. Commissioners Frank E. Landis Jr., Tim Schram, and Rod Johnson voted to approve the mainline alternative route, while Rhoades and Mary Ridder voted against. 

The 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline will transport more than 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska where it will be connected to the Keystone pipeline system and run to refineries and export terminals in the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama blocked the project in 2015 citing its impacts on climate change, but President Trump reversed his decision earlier this year.

Approval of the $8-billion project came despite a section of the Keystone pipeline leaking almost 800,000 liters of oil in nearby South Dakota just last week before being shut down by TransCanada on November 16.

Opponents have vigorously fought the pipeline, including through the construction of solar panels in Nebraska along its proposed route. Despite the loss, environmental and Indigenous groups vowed to continue the fight against the Keystone XL.

“Today’s decision is no guarantee that this pipeline will ever be built. Nebraska opted not to give TransCanada its preferred route through the state, so the company now has more hurdles in front of its beleaguered pipeline,” said Greenpeace Canada Climate and Energy Campaigner Mike Hudema. “Given last week's reminder of the dangers pipelines like Keystone XL pose, the resistance to this project will continue to grow and TransCanada will face legal challenges, and resistance to its construction plans on the land and in the banks [through the divestment movement].”

Jane Kleeb, the passionate leader of the nonprofit Bold Alliance, waged a tough grassroots battle against the pipeline and took the choice of the alternative route as at least a partial denial of KXL that might make the project less financially viable, especially to investors, due to the increased expenses associated with building the alternative route. 

“Keystone XL will never be built. We must protect the Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer from a risky export pipeline and eminent domain abuse,” she said. “TransCanada was already on thin margins to get their pipeline in the ground, and there is simply no reason they are not forced to move these last 50 miles of route as well, in order to avoid the Sandhills and our water.”

“We are disappointed that the commissioners approved Keystone XL, and have chosen to place the route through the most fragile soils and over and through the Ogalalla Aquifer — refusing to see the value of our natural resources,” said Art Tanderup, a farmer on the Keystone XL pipeline route near Neligh, NE. “The PSC has decided that a foreign corporation is more important than Nebraska citizens. Their message is that it is okay to abuse property rights, land use rights, and Indigenous rights. When the state should be moving forward with more renewable energies and a statewide energy plan, the commissioners are allowing the dirtiest of fossil fuels to accelerate climate change.”

Any official intervenors in the case, including Bold Alliance, landowners, and tribes, now have 30 days to file an appeal in Nebraska courts. 

At a press conference following the meeting, Kleeb said the decision to choose the Mainline Alternative Route, which has not had the same level of scrutiny as TransCanada’s preferred route, opens the project up to legal challenges. 

“It throws the entire project into a huge legal question mark because the Public Service Commission did not review that alternative route,” she said. “While I deeply appreciate the fact that TransCanada did not get their preferred route, it also opens up a huge victory for us in order to fight this now at the federal level.”

Kleeb confirmed that Bold Alliance would join lawsuits with national environmental groups in order to protect Nebraska landowners. In addition, she noted that two of the commissioners who voted yes to the pipeline are up for election in 2018, and Bold Alliance would now direct a grassroots campaign to try to place Democrats on the commission to swing the vote. 

“I have a very good feeling this decision will come back in front of the Public Service Commission at one point,” she said.

Ron Johnson
Is based in Toronto, Canada, where he is an editor for Post City magazines and contributes to The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, The National Post and the London Business Times.

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