Nebraska trial could lead to delays for Keystone pipeline
While environmentalists, energy executives and elected officials across North America await the State Department’s critical decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, a little-noticed trial scheduled for next month in Nebraska could spell problems for the $5.3 billion project.
Despite two attempts by Nebraska’s attorney general to have the case thrown out, Lancaster County District Judge Stephanie Stacy has set a Sept. 27 trial date for arguments in a lawsuit that contends the state legislature unconstitutionally gave Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, authority to approve the pipeline route.
A win for the plaintiffs – three Nebraska landowners who oppose the pipeline – would force TransCanada, the company that wants to build the 1,179-mile northern leg of the project, to go through the entire siting process again. Even supporters do not believe that would permanently block the project, but it could add years to the timeline. Appeals through the court system could have a similar effect.
“I don’t think (people) realize how Nebraska is a big monkey wrench in all this,” said Brian Jorde, attorney for the three landowners.
The State Department must sign off on the pipeline because it would cross a U.S. border, bringing as much as 830,000 barrels a day of diluted bitumen crude from oil sands in Alberta to U.S. refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. A State Department official said the agency’s review of the pipeline is continuing and would not be affected by the Nebraska litigation.
But route decisions are left to the states along the way, which gives Nebraska jurisdiction over nearly 200 miles of the proposed project. That might not have been a problem for TransCanada until the state legislature, acting in the final hours of its 2012 session, took authority over review and approval of the route away from the five elected members of the Public Service Commission and instead gave it to Heineman and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The bill, LB 1161, passed by an overwhelming majority.
It also authorized the governor to give TransCanada the power of eminent domain over landholders, a valuable weapon as the company seeks easements from farmers and ranchers to run the pipeline through Nebraska.