LINCOLN — Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk announced Wednesday that key state lawmakers will meet next week with a top TransCanada official.
Flood, an accomplished negotiator, said he wants to see whether the two groups can find common ground concerning the route of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
But he also said it appears a majority of state senators favor calling a special session to enact legislation regulating the pipeline.
TransCanada's proposal to build the pipeline across Nebraska's environmentally sensitive Sand Hills has prompted a groundswell of opposition in the state and across the country.
The Sand Hills overlie the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies the bulk of Nebraska's drinking and irrigation water.
Flood's announcement comes as the battle over the pipeline grows more heated.
Three environmental groups sued the federal government Wednesday for allowing work to start before the project has received final approval.
The groups named the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. State Department in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Omaha.
The lawsuit claims that the agencies have allowed TransCanada, the project sponsor, to mow a pathway for the pipeline before the State Department has given final authorization.
Such work, when completed before a project's approval, violates the National Environmental Policy Act, said Noah Greenwald, a staff member of the Center for Biological Diversity.
“For that company to have already begun work on the route makes a mockery of the public process,” he said, noting the two public hearings the State Department hosted in Nebraska just last week.
The center and Friends of the Earth, both national organizations, joined with the Western Nebraska Resources Council to file the legal challenge. They have asked for a declaratory judgment calling the site preparation work illegal and seeking an injunction to stop it.
State Department officials are expected to decide before the end of the year about issuing a permit for the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry tar-sand oil from western Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
With the federal review nearing an end, Flood said he understands that time is “of the essence” for action by the state Legislature.
But he wants to make sure lawmakers act thoughtfully and have done their homework first.
That includes looking into questions about the state's legal authority regarding an international project and about constitutional limits on state regulation. It also includes talking with constituents to find out what Nebraskans want.
“I think this process will unfold itself in the next couple of weeks,” Flood said.
He took issue with those, including Gov. Dave Heineman, who have accused the Legislature of a lack of leadership on the pipeline issue.
“No one in this branch of government is hiding,” Flood said. “As speaker, I am here to assure the citizens of Nebraska: Your Legislature will be responsible and will act responsibly.”
Next Tuesday's meeting will be a key milestone along the way.
Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada's president of energy and oil pipelines, has agreed to attend on the company's behalf, Flood said.
Flood asked three senators to attend: Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler, the Natural Resources Committee chairman; Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, who has drafted legislation that could become the starting point for a special session; and Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who introduced the lone piece of pipeline legislation passed during the regular legislative session.
Sullivan's bill requires crude-oil pipeline companies to reclaim any land disturbed by construction or operation of such a project during its lifetime.
Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said the company was happy to participate in the meeting.
“We look forward to presenting our views and, also, to listen to what others have to say,” he said, while noting that the pipeline route was chosen “based on facts, careful environmental studies and very deliberate considerations.”
In commenting on the lawsuit, Howard said TransCanada has not started construction, as the plaintiffs allege.
He said the company mowed the grass as part of its commitment to protecting the federally and state endangered American burying beetle.
Company officials have said TransCanada spent hundreds of thousands of dollars moving the beetles, which inhabit a limited area that falls on the pipeline's path. Mowing the roughly 100-foot-wide path through the grass-covered dunes was done to discourage the beetles from returning to the habitat where they were trapped and moved.
“We will put our position on this matter to the court in Nebraska,” Howard said.
Spokesmen for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Department said Wednesday that they were reviewing the complaint and were not ready to comment.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they learned about the site work from a recent World-Herald article revealing that TransCanada hired biologists to capture and relocate the burying beetles.
A TransCanada official told The World-Herald the early work was done to avoid a two-year delay in the project.
“It was not being done for the benefit of the environment. It was being done for the benefit of the corporation,” said Amy Atwood, a lawyer from Portland, Ore., who helped prepare the lawsuit.
The company has said that the pipeline would be the safest ever built and that moving the route would needlessly delay the project.
The environmental groups said the early site preparation work is just another sign the State Department intends to grant a permit for the project. They have called upon the president to make the final decision instead.
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