Trump’s Keystone XL decision sets up new fight in Nebraska

LINCOLN, Neb. — President Donald Trump may have approved a federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, but the fight is far from over in Nebraska, the one state in its path that has yet to approve the project.

The pipeline’s fate once again rests with the Nebraska Public Service Commission, an independently elected group of four Republicans and one Democrat. Organized opposition in Nebraska has hindered pipeline developer TransCanada, but leading opponents acknowledge they’ll face more of an uphill struggle this time.

Some key things to know about the situation:


Opponents in Nebraska mobilized amid concerns about the Sandhills, an ecologically fragile region of grass-covered sand dunes, and the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive groundwater supply that underlies nearly the entire state. The project’s tangled history includes lawsuits, dozens of state and federal hearings, and threats of protests in Nebraska that could resemble the Dakota Access Pipeline showdown in North Dakota.

Nebraska activists say the pipeline could leak and pollute their water supply, and argue that construction would disrupt the state’s natural habitat. Company officials have said the project will be among the safest in the nation and point to an existing Keystone pipeline that already runs through eastern Nebraska.

Although TransCanada has secured agreements with roughly 90 per cent of the Nebraska landowners along the route, those who oppose it say the Canadian company shouldn’t be allowed to use eminent domain to gain access to their property.

The $8 billion pipeline would move oil from Alberta, Canada, across Montana and South Dakota to Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines that feed Texas Gulf Coast refineries. South Dakota regulators have approved the project but opponents are asking a judge to reverse the decision.

TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said the company will consult with stakeholders in Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota as Nebraska works its way through the decision process.



The Nebraska Public Service Commission is expected to review the proposal in a process that takes an average of seven months, although commissioners can postpone a decision for up to a year. If the commission approves the route, TransCanada could then initiate legal proceedings to gain access to the land owned by holdout property owners.

Although the commission is partisan, Nebraska’s constitution requires members to serve in a role akin to judges, and they don’t take public positions on specific projects before a case is heard. Commissioners must determine whether a project serves the public interest.

Even so, activists will try to pressure members into rejecting the pipeline. Pipeline fighters are considering a campaign challenge against one commission member who represents a left-leaning district, said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the Bold Alliance, a group that opposes the Keystone XL.



Despite loud opposition in Nebraska, most of the state’s top elected officials support the pipeline. Earlier this month, 33 of the Legislature’s 49 members — almost all Republicans — signed a letter endorsing the project. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts said the Keystone XL will generate an estimated $11.8 million in property tax revenue in one year for the counties the pipeline would traverse.

“The presidential permit for the Keystone XL is a welcome step forward to securing improved energy infrastructure in Nebraska and nationally, while also creating jobs and ensuring our energy independence,” Ricketts said in a statement Friday.

Ricketts said he’s confident the Public Service Commission “will conduct a thorough and fair review” of TransCanada’s application.

Nebraska Democrats are less enthusiastic. Some support the project for the union jobs it will provide, but many have voiced concerns about its environmental impact.



The main opposition coalition includes landowners, environmental advocates and Native Americans who see the pipeline as harmful to their homeland. Opponents say they plan to focus first on the Nebraska Public Service Commission, but may resort to protests if necessary.

“Someone needs to stand up for Mother Earth, and the tribes will do that if no one else will,” said Frank LaMere, a longtime activist and member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. “I think we have many allies, Native and non-Native, who will come together for this struggle.”

Larry Wright, the chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, said opponents may draw from experiences protesting at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

“We’ll continue to stand together … and show the country why this is bad, particularly for us here in Nebraska,” he said.

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