LINCOLN — Oil pipeline routes in Nebraska would require state approval under a proposed bill intended to rally support for a special legislative session on the controversial Keystone XL project.
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton emailed a copy of the Oil Pipeline Siting Act to her legislative colleagues Monday and planned to follow up this week with phone calls to press for a special session.
“We have a very short timeline here,” she said. “If we don't do something before the end of the year, there's not much chance we'll have any ability to interact with this particular project.”
She referred to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry 700,000 barrels of oil daily from the tar-sand region of western Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. She and other elected officials, including Gov. Dave Heineman, want the project rerouted to prevent possible contamination of groundwater supplies beneath the Nebraska Sand Hills.
Because the project crosses an international border, the U.S. State Department will decide whether the pipeline is in the national interest. Department officials have said they intend to make a decision by the end of the year.
TransCanada, the project's sponsor, insists that the proposed route is the most cost-efficient of several paths that were considered.
Spokesmen say the company has committed to make the Keystone XL the safest pipeline ever built.
The Dubas bill would require TransCanada and other large pipeline builders to submit applications to the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which would have eight months to review the route and make a decision. Approval would give the applicant the power to use eminent domain to obtain right of way for the pipeline.
Other provisions of the bill would require recommendations from eight other state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Natural Resources, the Game and Parks Commission and the Department of Revenue.
The Public Service Commission also would be required to hold public hearings on proposed pipelines.
The $517,000 annual cost of the bill would be covered by fees to pipeline applicants and would not require taxpayer dollars, Dubas said.
The bill would require pipeline applicants to identify “unusually sensitive groundwater areas” near proposed routes. In addition, they would have to report the number of jobs anticipated for construction and operation of the pipeline, with an estimate of how many employees would come from outside the state.
Currently, two underground oil pipelines cross the state: One runs through eastern Nebraska and another follows a stretch of the Platte River. Neither pipeline crosses the Sand Hills.
Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, who worked with Dubas on the bill, said it gives Nebraska a way to protect its unique interests when a project is national in scope.
Haar also has been working to convene a special session through a poll of legislators, which has never been done. It would require 33 of 49 lawmakers to agree to the special session.
An informal poll of state senators last week by The World-Herald found seven in support of a special session, nine against and 33 undecided. Nearly all the undecided senators said they wanted to see a bill.
“It gives me hope that senators are keeping an open mind and waiting for something to form an opinion about,” Dubas said.
While Dubas, Haar and other senators will work the phones this week, it's safe to say TransCanada will, too — the company has hired Walt Radcliffe, one of Nebraska's most influential lobbyists, to fend off a special session.
Although the governor could call the special session himself, he has been unwilling to do so.
Instead, he has encouraged Nebraskans who want the pipeline rerouted to make their views known to the U.S. State Department. State Department hearings last week in Lincoln and Atkinson drew hundreds of comments from supporters and opponents.
In an interview Monday with The World-Herald, Heineman said he must be convinced that Dubas has the votes to pass the bill before he calls lawmakers back to the State Capitol.
The governor also acknowledged that he and other state leaders should have reacted much sooner to the pipeline. Heineman did not take a firm stance against the Sand Hills route until several weeks ago.
“We're very late to this game. I don't think there is any question Nebraska should have done something years before,” he said.
The governor also said Monday that he still questions whether Nebraska has the authority to pre-empt the State Department, which already has determined that the proposed route is appropriate. For that reason, he argued that pressure needs to be applied on President Barack Obama.
Dubas said Monday that she believes the state has clear constitutional authority to decide the pipeline's route. That's a change from the last legislative session, when she held the view that pipeline siting authority rested solely with the federal government.
“It just started to bubble up to the surface that maybe states have more rights than we were led to believe,” she said. “It became more clear to me that we did have this authority.”
World-Herald staff writers Martha Stoddard and Robynn Tysver contributed to this report.
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