Nebraska lawmakers backed a plan Wednesday to have the state's Department of Environmental Quality conduct an independent review of possible routes the contested Keystone XL pipeline could take through the state, after developer TransCanada volunteered to reroute the massive project to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region.
The single-house Legislature voted 45-0 in favor of Speaker Mike Flood's proposal to task Nebraska's environmental protection agency with examining new possible routes. The Legislature would have to back the measure twice more before it could go to Gov. Dave Heineman.
TransCanada volunteered this week divert its proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline so that it wouldn't pass through the Nebraska Sandhills. The offer followed the U.S. State Department's announcement that it would delay its decision on the transnational pipeline until at least 2013.
The proposed $7 billion pipeline would carry up to 700,000 barrels of crude a day from Alberta's tar sands to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. The route would cross six states _ Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma and Texas _ and had stirred fears about a contamination threat to the Ogallala aquifer, a key water source for eight states.
On Wednesday, Flood told his fellow lawmakers that he wants to allay Nebraskans' concerns about the State Department review of the project. Critics have questioned an earlier federal review because it was conducted by Cardno ENTRIX, a Houston-based environmental contractor that has identified TransCanada as a major client for other projects. Cardno ENTRIX has denied any conflict of interest.
"You can remove a lot of the concerns of citizens by having the state pay for it, to assure them that this is a straightforward, fair process," Flood said. "That report only belongs to the taxpayers of Nebraska."
Environmentalists and some Nebraska landowners said the pipeline would have disrupted the Sandhills' loose soil for decades, harmed wildlife, and contaminated the groundwater. Business and labor groups who support the project have said the environmental criticism is overblown and based more on opposition to oil than the project itself. They maintain the project would create thousands of construction jobs, although the exact number is disputed.
TransCanada has said the pipeline would use new technology that would make it among the safest pipelines in the world. Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada's president for energy and oil pipelines, has said the state study could be finished in six to nine months with cooperation from state and federal agencies.
Any new proposed route would go to Heineman, who would send his response to the U.S. State Department within 30 days. The Republican governor has said he backs the project but not a route through the Sandhills, which sit on top of the aquifer. The State Department still has to approve or deny the entire project, because it crosses an international border.
Some lawmakers asked Wednesday why the state, and not TransCanada, should pay for the environmental review. Lawmakers said the review could cost $2 million.
State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln said most other licensing requirements within the state, such as nursing or barber certification, require applicants to pay.
"Those applicants are assessed those fees to work through the process," she said. "It seems a little inequitable to me that we're waiving those kinds of existing models that have worked well, and worked free of any conflict or undue influence, for a large company."
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, who has opposed the initial pipeline route, said he disliked the state expense but called it "absolutely necessary" to rebuild public confidence in the environmental review.
"We need to have a process that is credible, free of conflicts," he said.