Nebraska Lawmakers Could Look To Rein In Oil Pipeline

Despite federal jurisdiction, Nebraska lawmakers could formulate legislation this session on a much-debated plan to run an oil pipeline through the state and over parts of the massive Ogallala aquifer, which helps feed the region and the world. The Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee met in early December with groundwater and geological experts, residents and pipeline officials to discuss the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, set to be constructed next year. It would carry oil from Canada through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to Texas oil refineries. TransCanada has also proposed connecting the pipeline to the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota. The proposed path crosses several rivers and the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water to about 2 million people in eight states and supports irrigation. The pipeline system is seen by supporters as a key step toward reducing the nation’s dependence on oil from overseas and as an economic boon during construction. Critics argue that a spill could have disastrous effects in the region. Last year, Nebraska lawmakers had little problem with the proposed oil pipeline. In fact, TransCanada already has an oil pipeline in place, the Keystone pipeline. It carries crude oil from Canada through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. But the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year, as well as a broken pipeline that spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, have officials thinking twice about the safety of the proposed Keystone XL line. At a Dec. 1 hearing, state Sen. Ken Haar, of Malcolm, peppered a TransCanada official with questions and expressed doubt about the integrity of the proposed pipeline. “I don’t buy that the safety of this pipeline is equivalent to all the other pipelines in the state,” Haar said. TransCanada executive Robert Jones, who is overseeing the Keystone project through Nebraska, said it would be the best and safest pipeline ever built. He also said the multibillion-dollar project would create more than 1,200 jobs in Nebraska and would inject more than $20 billion in new spending into the U.S. economy. Safeguards would notify TransCanada officials almost immediately in the event of a leak, he said, adding that leaking oil is not likely to reach groundwater. “Spills that do contact groundwater do not migrate great distances,” he said. Other lawmakers, such as state Sens. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton, and Kate Sullivan, of Cedar Rapids, also expressed concern, but conceded that the routing of the proposed pipeline is likely a federal issue that state lawmakers can little influence. Because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canadian border, presidential permits from the U.S. State Department are required. That does not mean the state can’t exert more oversight on pipeline companies, Dubas said. Lawmakers could consider measures this session that would protect landowners in the event of an oil spill, as well as require pipeline companies to remove pipes from the ground rather than abandoning them in years tocome if the oil dries up or the company goes out of business. The Legislature also could look at tightening laws regarding eminent domain, which TransCanada has threatened to use to obtain the land easements it needs for the project. The session begins next week. ((30 DEC 2010))

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