Keystone XL pipeline map

LINCOLN — The Canadian company that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline took legal action Tuesday to secure remaining right of way from a group of holdout Nebraska landowners.

A representative for Trans­Canada Corp. said eminent domain petitions were filed in nine counties against fewer than 90 landowners. The landowners represent the last people along the 1,187-mile pipeline route to refuse voluntary easement agreements.

“This is just another step in the process,” said Andrew Craig, land manager for the Keystone projects. “Eminent domain has a ring of finality, but we still remain committed to reaching voluntary agreements.”

The anticipated action prompted a defiant response from Jane Kleeb, of the environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska, a leading pipeline opponent.

“Today, Nebraska families are facing an inconceivable moment when land that has been in their hands for generations is being taken away from them by a foreign oil company,” Kleeb said in a press release. “Landowners are prepared to battle TransCanada in court to stop them from using eminent domain for private gain.”

Under a 2012 state law that approved the pipeline route in Nebraska, the company had until last Thursday to file eminent domain actions. Court hearings will follow and an independent panel will determine the value of easements and any crop damage caused by pipeline construction before a judge orders the land condemned for the pipeline’s use.

The estimated $8 billion project would carry up to 830,000 barrels of mostly heavy crude oil from Canada through parts of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska before connecting to an existing pipeline network near the Kansas border. From there, the oil would move to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

On the same day the land claims hit courthouses, State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha introduced a bill that would prevent eminent domain from being used to build major oil pipelines. Legislative Bill 473 likely faces tough sledding given that last year, 34 of 49 senators signed a letter supporting Keystone XL. There are 18 new senators this session.

The company’s efforts to obtain land rights will now become a central element of a second legal challenge by landowners who want to halt the project.

In the first such challenge, the Nebraska Supreme Court recently allowed the 2012 pipeline law to stand. Three of the seven judges ruled landowners lacked standing because it wasn’t clear if their property was on the route and could be damaged. The court’s remaining four judges ruled the law is unconstitutional, but a super-­majority of five votes was needed to overturn the law.

Last week, several landowners filed new lawsuits in York and Holt Counties, saying the company’s use of eminent domain now gives them clear legal standing to show they could be damaged by the law.

TransCanada officials are hopeful the eminent domain process will be concluded within six months, Craig said.

Since company officials announced several weeks ago that they intended to use eminent domain if necessary, more landowners have agreed to its terms, Craig said. As of Tuesday, about 12 percent of landowners had not reached voluntary agreements, he said, compared with 14 percent before the announcement.

“We view getting 88 percent voluntarily, with all the politics over this project, as a tremendous success,” he said.

Of the fewer than 90 landowners who have as of yet refused to sign, about 40 are represented by attorneys, Craig said. Omaha lawyer Dave Domina, the same attorney who spearheaded the constitutional lawsuits, also has represented an association of landowners along the route.

There are more than 500 privately owned land parcels along the proposed route, Craig said.

Under the terms of the permanent easements, the company controls the rights to a 50-foot-wide strip of land for the sole purpose of operating a single, underground oil pipeline. But the property owners retain ownership of the land.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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