LINCOLN — In calling on the Obama administration Wednesday to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, Gov. Dave Heineman provided momentum for a move he's not ready to endorse: a special legislative session on the controversial project.
A small group of state lawmakers has pushed for a special session this fall to pass legislation to avoid routing such crude-oil pipelines through Nebraska's fragile Sand Hills and the underlying Ogallala Aquifer.
Heineman has resisted that call, saying it was too late and too costly. But in clearly stating Wednesday that he opposes a pipeline route through the Sand Hills, he added fuel to that fire.
"This has grabbed the attention of senators," said State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, the speaker of the Legislature. "I have to admit, members want something done."
"It does change the tenor of things," said Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton.
Heineman's letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spelled out his objections to routing the 36-inch, high-pressure Keystone XL pipeline through the Sand Hills and over the aquifer.
Heineman wrote that he's not opposed to pipelines but is concerned that the proposed route over the aquifer "will potentially have detrimental effects on this valuable natural resource and Nebraska's economy."
"Deny the permit and change the route," he said in an interview. "It's a route that could potentially contaminate our water supply. We don't want to do that."
He said he has sensed a growing concern among Nebraskans about the route and urged all 49 state senators to write similar letters to Washington.
He sidestepped questions about a special session, a decision typically left to the governor, although a session can also be called by a polling of state senators.
"We've got to focus on the most immediate opportunity we have to impact this decision," he said, which is the federal permit process. "If they say no, the route's going to change."
His letter came five days after the State Department issued its final environmental impact statement. The report concluded that the proposed pipeline route would have limited adverse effects and that alternative routes didn't reduce the risks of contamination.
The report also asserted that if the route changed, it would no longer be economically feasible to build the $7 billion pipeline because it would raise construction costs by 25 percent.
Clinton, or her designee, now has 90 days to determine whether the pipeline is in the nation's interest and should receive a federal permit. If any federal agency objects to a preliminary decision on that question, the issue defaults to Obama, who has been the subject of a string of protests outside the White House.
The pipeline is designed to ship 700,000 barrels of oil a day from the tar-sand mines of western Canada to oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Supporters have said that the United States needs to bolster oil shipments from friendly allies such as Canada and that the project would generate hundreds of much-needed construction jobs.
Opponents have criticized the mining of oil sands as overly damaging to the environment and overly risky to the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides 78 percent of Nebraska's drinking water and 83 percent of its water for livestock and crops.
Supporters, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to pipeline builder TransCanada Inc., decried Heineman's letter.
"Our main question is 'Why now?'" said Ron Kaminski of Laborers' Union Local 1140 of Omaha. "Weighing in against this project at the twelfth hour doesn't help create jobs and puts the entire $7 billion project in jeopardy. The science has shown this route to be safe."
TransCanada spokesman Jeff Rauh said he would welcome a meeting with Heineman to explain why "analysis after analysis" concluded that the aquifer is not at risk." Any leaks would be quickly discovered and quickly cleaned up, he said.
"Impacts are localized," he told a gathering of Nebraska legislative aides Wednesday. "They're measured in tens of feet or hundreds of feet."
Heineman wrote that water is the "lifeblood" of the state's $17 billion agriculture industry.
He disagreed with the State Department's conclusion that oil leaks in the Sand Hills would affect only a limited area, based on a comparison with a 1979 pipeline spill near Bemidji, Minn.
That concern mirrored one expressed in June by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors John Gates and Wayne Woldt.
They said their studies of groundwater flow and contamination in the Sand Hills led them to conclude that a more thorough investigation is needed of the impact of oil leaks there.
Gates said Wednesday that he agreed with Heineman's letter and thought the Bemidji spill wasn't completely analogous to what could happen in the Sand Hills.
"That groundwater in the Nebraska Sand Hills would be particularly vulnerable to a crude-oil release," Gates said.
Heineman is the first Nebraska elected official to call on Obama to reject a pipeline permit, although Sen. Mike Johanns has pressed TransCanada and federal regulators for months to reroute the project around the Sand Hills.
Johanns issued a statement Wednesday supporting his Republican colleague's letter.
"It's clear to me, after traveling throughout the state, that most Nebraskans agree a better route is needed," Johanns said.
Sen. Ben Nelson, who has also objected to the pipeline route, said Wednesday that it's clear the state can pass laws to affect routing.
"And if he wants a different location, he can offer it," Nelson, a Democrat, said of Heineman. "But he's running out of time."
State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, who has led the call for a special session, said he is drafting legislation similar to a Montana law that requires pipeline and electrical transmission companies to submit at least two alternative routes for projects.
A Montana state environmental quality official, Greg Hallsten, said the state's siting law regularly results in changes in routing to avoid irrigated cropland and endangered wildlife, including changes in the Keystone XL route.
"I'm not aware of any pipeline or electrical transmission line that has gotten a rubber stamp," Hallsten said.
Harr said he fears that the pipeline will win federal approval because of energy security concerns and the desire to be a good neighbor to Canada.
"If we had a special session, we could pass a law that would put the routing in our hands instead of letting the federal government decide that," Haar said.
Flood and Fulton said lawmakers would have to agree on the type of legislation needed before it would be practical to call a special session. Setting up regulations and choosing an agency to review pipelines would further complicate things, they said.
But, Flood added, he has sensed that attitudes and concerns regarding the pipeline have either changed or become stronger since this spring.
World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.
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