Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said Monday he will call a special legislative session that could allow lawmakers to challenge the route of a massive transnational oil pipeline, despite uncertainty about whether such an effort will succeed or stand up in court.
The Republican governor said he wants lawmakers to find a "legal and constitutional" solution to allow for state oversight of oil pipelines, including the hotly contested Keystone XL project. The U.S. State Department has authority to approve or scuttle the $7 billion Keystone project because it would cross the national border.
Heineman said he will call lawmakers into session Nov. 1, which means they'll have little time to act before the end of the year, when federal authorities are scheduled decide the project's fate.
The 1,700-mile pipeline, which would travel through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, ending up on Texas's Gulf Coast, would carry an estimated 700,000 barrels of oil a day, doubling the capacity of an existing pipeline from Canada.
Heineman has said he supports the pipeline but opposes the route, which would cut through part of the Ogallala aquifer, a massive water supply in Nebraska and seven other states.
The governor acknowledged lawmakers will face steep challenges with any proposal that might affect the project, which has been in the planning and review stage for years. Any state law that tries to derail the proposal will face an all-but-certain legal challenge.
"At the end of the day I want to be very, very clear: I believe we need to make the effort. I think Nebraskans will appreciate that," Heineman said. "But it's entirely possible at the end of the day we'll have this conversation, and the Legislature may reach the conclusion that we don't have any legal or constitutional option."
Nebraska Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood welcomed the plan to hold a special session, despite saying last week that a bill to reroute the pipeline would not likely survive a legal challenge.
"This issue has never been about whether the state has a legitimate role in protecting our groundwater and natural resources," Flood said. "The question, for me, has been how to exercise that role within the parameters of the law."
Pipeline opponents in the Legislature are now looking at ways to amend the bill to focus on other concerns where the state would have authority, such as protecting Nebraska's cultural identity or economic interests.
"If we don't succeed, at least we will have tried," said state Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln. "The voters will respect at least that."
Supporters say the pipeline could reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil, while environmental groups say it would bring "dirty oil" that requires huge amounts of energy to extract and could cause an ecological disaster in case of a spill.
Pipeline operator TransCanada last week offered new safeguards it said would limit the effect of a potential spill, but company executives maintained they cannot move the proposed route at this point in the federal permitting process.
Supporters of the project derided Heineman's decision to call the special session, noting a three-year State Department analysis found no major environmental threat from the project and arguing the project will create of jobs during the two-year construction phase.
"It's unfortunate that the governor chose to ignore these facts and instead put taxpayers on the hook for an exercise that will either yield no legislation or put the state in the middle of a costly litigation cycle," said Michael Whatley, executive vice president of the Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance.
Pipeline opponents maintained the state already has so-called siting authority to control where the pipeline will run.
"We have the authority to require bond for road repairs. We have the authority to make sure landowners are not liable for oil spills," said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the group Bold Nebraska. "The list is long on what our state can do to ensure our land and water are safe."