LINCOLN — A state agency has issued its preliminary review of the Keystone XL pipeline that appears to indicate most concerns are being addressed.
The draft evaluation report, released Tuesday afternoon by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, concluded that the new route of the controversial crude-oil pipeline successfully avoids the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, a step agreed to during a special session of the Legislature last year.
The report also stated that pipeline developer TransCanada Inc. had, by making some minor changes to the pipeline route in August, addressed concerns raised by the agency about crossing areas of sandy soils or areas near municipal drinking-water supplies of two small communities, Clarks and Western.
The agency also said TransCanada has agreed to compile an emergency response plan for leaks that might occur in the 36-inch, high-pressure pipeline, and buy $200 million in third-party liability insurance policy to cover any clean-up costs.
The company has provided the state with a chemical makeup of several forms of crude oil that will be shipped through the pipeline, which will carry 30 million gallons of oil a day. The exact composition of the oil, the agency said, will be made immediately available in the event of a leak.
Environmental groups, including Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club, have raised concerns about the lack of information about the chemical makeup of diluted bitumen that will be carried by the pipeline. Bitumen is a thick form of oil steamed out of tar sand deposits in Canada and diluted with chemicals — including some that cause cancer — so it can flow through a pipeline.
The groups also have complained about the lack of specific emergency response plans for a leak, pointing to problems in responding to a major oil spill on another Canadian pipeline in Michigan in 2010 that's projected to cost $800 million to clean up.
Mike Linder, director of the Department of Environmental Quality, said it would not be accurate to label the draft report as “favorable” to the project, but he did say that TransCanada has been responsive to concerns raised by his agency, the state's contractor, HDR of Omaha, and the public.
“They've provided all the information we've needed to describe the impacts the project will have and the mitigation that would be available,” Linder said, adding that his description of the report is “objective.”
While Tuesday's draft report doesn't raise “concerns” like those this summer about sandy soils and drinking-water wells in the path of the pipeline, he said it does “point out the impacts on different kinds of terrain” that will be crossed by the pipeline.
A public hearing on the draft report will be held at 6 p.m. on Dec. 4 at the Boone County Fairgrounds in Albion, Neb. Linder encouraged the public to comment on the report, either at the meeting or by mail or email.
A final report will be issued after the hearing. Gov. Dave Heineman will have the final say on whether the state approves the pipeline's route across Nebraska.
That decision will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of State, which will make the final judgment on whether the entire Keystone XL project will be allowed. The project will transport oil from Canada's tar sands region to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and pick up some oil from North Dakota and Montana along the way.
The pipeline project was denied a permit in January by the Obama administration, which indicated it needed more time to review the project and if it threatened drinking water supplies in the Ogallala Aquifer, an ocean of groundwater that is at its thickest points beneath the Sand Hills. The pipeline route has since been changed to avoid the Sand Hills.
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