WASHINGTON — The proposed Keystone XL pipeline route through the Sand Hills is as good as any when it comes to safety and environmental impact, according to a federal report released Friday.
It also happens to be the cheapest.
The State Department compared different ways of routing the pipeline through, or around, Nebraska as part of a final environmental impact statement on the project. Major changes to the pipeline route would increase its length by hundreds of miles and add significantly to the cost, making it economically unfeasible for oil companies, according to the statement.
It also concluded that alternative routes would do little, if anything, to lessen its overall environmental impact.
"Instead, these routes would shift risks to other areas of the Northern High Plains Aquifer system and to other aquifers," according to the report. "In addition, these alternatives would be longer than the proposed route and would disturb more land and cross more water bodies than the proposed route."
The central finding of the examination — that the proposed pipeline would have little adverse impact on the environment — represents a significant boost for the $7 billion project, designed to ship tar-sand oil from western Canada to oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or her designee, now has 90 days to determine whether the project is in the national interests, as argued by pro-pipeline forces. They say the pipeline would provide a more stable supply of oil than countries like Venezuela and would create hundreds of construction jobs.
But the report also provided ammunition for those on the other side, who say a high-pressure, 36-inch crude-oil pipeline presents an unreasonable risk to the groundwater beneath the Sand Hills, which provides 78 percent of the state's drinking water and 83 percent of its water for crop irrigation.
Opponents seized on the report's conclusion that state governments can exercise authority over pipeline routes, as has been done by the State of Montana but not by Nebraska.
State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said that part of the report should provide momentum to his call for a special legislative session this fall to force a change in the pipeline route away from the Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer.
"We shouldn't put Nebraska's water supply and environment at risk," Haar said. "We're in this for our children and children's children, forever."
Haar said a coalition of environmental groups is being formed called "Save Our Sandhills." Members plan to pass out literature at the Nebraska State Fair urging citizens to contact their legislators to support the special session.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced Friday that it was forming a Nebraska affiliate of a group called "Partnership to Fuel America" that will promote the pipeline.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said he was disappointed by Friday's report.
Johanns, an outspoken opponent of the proposed route, said it seems the State Department long ago reached a conclusion that the pipeline would be built and that it would be built along the backers' preferred route. He noted that the existing Keystone pipeline, which avoids the Sand Hills, generated little controversy in Nebraska when it was built.
"If in fact there's no other better route, how in the heck did that first one get approved?" Johanns said.
According to the report, options that involve moving the new pipeline to follow the existing pipeline route through Nebraska would largely avoid the Sand Hills but would not significantly reduce the total mileage of pipeline that crosses shallow groundwater in Nebraska.
"The Keystone Corridor Alternatives therefore would not eliminate the risk to groundwater resources," according to the report. "Rather, they would transfer that risk to other groundwater areas and other groundwater users, both within the (aquifer) system and elsewhere."
As for other environmental impact, the report notes that moving the new pipeline to run alongside the existing one would mean fewer acres of affected rangeland and grassland, but it would significantly increase the acres of wetlands and agricultural land that the pipeline would affect.
"This would result in increasing the potential for short- to long-term impacts to soil, crop production, and other damages to agricultural land as compared to the impacts of the proposed project," the report concludes.
Johanns suggested that the part of the report assigning authority over pipeline routes to the states is an attempt by the department to dump responsibility on the states. Still, if Nebraska officials want to weigh in on the issue, he said, they probably will have time while project opponents tie things up in court.
Johanns said Nebraska officials should first take a long look at the part of the U.S. Constitution that gives the federal government the role of regulating interstate commerce.
When reached at the State Fair in Grand Island, Gov. Dave Heineman declined to comment, saying he hadn't read the environmental report yet.
Jeff Rauh, a spokesman for the pipeline developer, TransCanada, said that even if Nebraska seeks to exercise authority over pipeline location, it still would have to adopt technical criteria for evaluating proposed routes.
He said that would involve the same process that has been going on for three years on the Keystone XL and that has resulted in the proposed route coming out on top time and again.
"The proposed route has been found to minimize impacts compared to any of those routes," Rauh said. "The idea of shifting to another route is one that increases the impacts of the project."
He said shifting the route involves exposing other, potentially more sensitive areas to risk and increases the length of the pipeline. More miles of pipeline means a higher overall risk of spills, he said.
"In addition, you have increased construction impact — more landowners crossed, more streams (and) rivers crossed, more potential habitat for threatened and endangered species," Rauh said.
Increasing the length of the pipeline also increases the cost, a fact made clear in the study released Friday.
For example, one alternative route involves moving the pipeline to the east to follow the corridor of the existing Keystone pipeline.
That change would add about 250 miles of pipeline at an increased cost of $1.6 billion, or 25 percent of the total project cost, according to the study. That would make the project economically unfeasible and would prompt companies seeking shipments of crude oil to seek other alternatives.
Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, a group opposing the pipeline, said that's not the concern of Nebraskans.
"I don't care if it's more expensive. ... I didn't realize that we as the United States were all of a sudden in the business of making life easier for a foreign oil company," Kleeb said.
Kleeb said the report underscores what her group has been saying for some time — that the real authority over the pipeline route lies with the governor. She said Heineman could call a special session or issue an executive order on the pipeline.
"He has that power," she said.
Haar has said he is seeking to force a special session by persuading enough state senators — 33 of 49 — to join in the call. That maneuver, however, has not been used successfully in recent memory. Typically, it's the governor who has called legislators back for special sessions on issues including balancing the budget or changing the state's method of capital punishment.
State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, speaker of the Legislature, said if it became clear Nebraska has the power to affect the pipeline route, the Legislature would "check the first box" in calling a special session. Lawmakers also would have to reach a consensus, however, on what legislation needs to be passed and conclude that immediate action is necessary, he said.
Kleeb, meanwhile, said her group is raising money for a ballot initiative.
"If the Unicameral and the governor do not act, we will take it straight to the voters with a ballot campaign about 'No oil pipelines can cross the Sand Hills,'" she said.
Kleeb and Haar both took issue with the report's dismissal of alternative routes. Kleeb said the State Department hasn't done an independent examination of the Sand Hills, which she said has unique soils that are unsuitable for the kind of pipeline that TransCanada is attempting to build.
Haar said the State Department basically concluded that the shorter the pipeline route, the safer the pipeline.
"That's like saying that walking across Dodge Street in the middle of the block is the safest route. It makes no sense," the senator said.
World-Herald staff writer Leslie Reed contributed to this report.
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