When the Keystone XL pipeline initially was proposed to cross the environmentally fragile Sand Hills and Ogallala Aquifer, state and local officials, landowners, small communities and individual Nebraskans were emphatic: The route was unacceptable.
We said editorially that Nebraskans had a special responsibility to protect those vast, vital and unique natural resources.
Today, it appears the state has done that.
Although Nebraska initially had no say in the matter, state leaders and lawmakers stepped up and passed new laws designed to make certain that Nebraska's voice was heard.
The pipeline company, TransCanada Inc., changed its route. State environmental experts reviewed it, and Gov. Dave Heineman on Tuesday OK'd a much-improved path for the pipeline to carry Canadian tarsands oil to U.S. refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
“Construction and operation of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, with mitigation and commitments from Keystone, would have minimal environmental impacts in Nebraska,” the governor said in a letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Federal approval still is needed and should be granted. The United States benefits from a steady supply of crude oil from our northern neighbor, Canada. A recent study suggested that Nebraska could get $1.8 billion in economic benefits if the pipeline were built.
State agencies and officials have made remarkable progress in the months since the Legislature authorized a state review of the pipeline's new route.
Lawmakers set up rules for pipelines such as the Keystone XL that want to cross the state. The state's Department of Environmental Quality was given responsibility for studying the proposed route and reporting to the governor, who was given the final say.
The DEQ held public information meetings and a public hearing, and it collected nearly 4,000 comments that were a major influence on the pipeline route and safety commitments made by Trans- Canada. The agency's recent 2,000-page report made no recommendation but also raised no serious objections about safety; it emphasized the project's potential economic benefits for the state. The pipeline's approved path follows a 195-mile diagonal line through the state from Keya Paha County to Jefferson County.
There still remains the uncertainty of a pending constitutional challenge of the routing law passed by the Legislature. The Lancaster County District Court is considering the case, filed by landowners along the proposed line. It's appropriate, however, for the pipeline approval process to continue while the court makes its decision.
Since the project was initiated, opponents have been chipping away at the edges of decisions, reports, environmental questions and other issues in an attempt to raise serious doubts about the pipeline's safety and environmental impact. For instance, a bald eagle nest near the chosen route recently was advanced as a concern and a potential stumbling block for the construction.
Considering that the state started with no oversight, no say in the routing and no voice in the process, it is remarkable — and encouraging — that the most recent debate would include whether the pipeline could be built without bothering a nest.
Anti-pipeline forces have begun to pressure Obama and Clinton, who will make final decisions on the development. It's now up to federal officials to move the proposal forward.
Meanwhile, the process crafted by the Nebraska Legislature for pipeline approval has worked, neither rushing the decision nor unnecessarily delaying it.
Nebraskans can be proud of the work of their Legislature, their governor and their Department of Environmental Quality, which ensured a safer, more environmentally responsible pipeline route across the state.
Whatever the ultimate fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, the state's approval mechanism can serve Nebraska well when other pipelines are proposed.