Fresh off a major victory in Nebraska, opponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline promised a renewed effort Tuesday to kill the contentious project that would pump Canadian crude from tar sands deposits in Alberta to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.
Pipeline critics hailed two new state laws as a win for landowners, environmentalists and Nebraskans who had worried about potential risks to an environmentally sensitive area that was on the original route proposed by Canadian developer TransCanada. But several opponents said they still opposed the entire project.
"The more we learn about TransCanada, and the type of oil they would have put in that pipeline, the more we know we have to stop it," said Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, an anti-pipeline group that helped organize in-state opponents. "We'll continue to fight on the state level, but we'll continue to bring this message to President Obama as well."
The U.S. State Department announced earlier this month that it will delay its decision on the transnational pipeline until at least 2013. TransCanada subsequently agreed to divert its proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline so that it wouldn't pass through the Nebraska Sandhills, a region of porous hills that includes a high concentration of wetlands and the Ogallala aquifer that provides water to huge swaths of U.S. cropland.
On Tuesday, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman signed two bills into law aimed at major oil pipelines, shortly before lawmakers ended their special session to confront concerns about the multibillion-dollar Keystone XL.
One law authorizes the state Department of Environmental Quality to conduct an environmental review of pipeline projects, including the Keystone XL. The governor would review the findings and submit an opinion to the U.S. State Department. The second law asserts Nebraska's authority over future oil pipeline projects, with public meetings and a mandatory review by the state Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities, telecommunications and mass transit.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the company would begin talks with the Department of Environmental Quality right away. He said the company plans to simultaneously consult with State Department officials about the 2013 timeline, and TransCanada officials still believe they could have a new Nebraska route approved in six to nine months.
"Continued and prolonged delays do put this project in serious doubt," Howard said. "There is a risk there."
Heineman called the special session last month amid a public outcry over the project, which had an estimated $7 billion price tag before the delays. The 1,700-mile pipeline would carry crude oil from Canada through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma on its way to Texas refineries.
Lawmakers credited outspoken constituents for the two laws that emerged from the session.
"At times, leaders lead," said Sen. Annette Dubas, who sponsored one of the bills. "But other times, the people lead. And I think especially on this issue, the people led."
Sen. Chris Langemeier, who chaired the committee that examined both bills, also noted Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature, an officially non-partisan one-house body created to be more transparent and responsive to citizen concerns.
"It's been a hard 15 days, and we got through it," he said. "The Unicam should be a model to all politics around the world. We can solve major problems in Nebraska in a timely manner."
The Keystone XL pipeline would carry as much as 700,000 barrels of oil a day, doubling the capacity of an existing pipeline operated by TransCanada in the upper Midwest. Supporters say the pipeline to Texas could significantly reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil while providing thousands of jobs.
The contentious project had threatened to become a political trap for President Barack Obama, who risked angering environmental supporters if he approved the pipeline. Some liberal donors also threatened to cut off contributions to Obama's re-election campaign if the pipeline was approved. Had he rejected it, labor and business groups likely would have accused him of thwarting job creation.
Environmentalists and some Nebraska landowners fear the pipeline would disrupt the region's loose soil for decades, harm wildlife, and contaminate the aquifer. Business and labor groups that support the project say the environmental criticism is overblown. They say the project will create thousands of construction jobs, although opponents say the estimates are inflated.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he made it clear to Obama that the nation will step up its efforts to sell oil to Asia since the decision was delayed, and would keep pushing the U.S. to approve the project.