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Nebraska Lawmakers Plead with Secy. Clinton to Delay Keystone XL Decision

The Nebraskans say that extending the deadline to May 2012 would give the Legislature another session to beef up its oil pipeline safeguards

Jun 3, 2011
Nebraska senator Colby Coash

WASHINGTON—Five Nebraska senators are asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to delay a decision on a controversial oil sands pipeline until they have extra time to address outstanding safety, routing and oversight issues.

The U.S. State Department is expected to issue a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the 1,702-mile, $7 billion Canada-to-Gulf Coast Keystone XL pipeline by the end of the year. However, the Nebraskans emphasized that extending the deadline to May 2012 would give the recently adjourned state Legislature another session to beef up safeguards.

"We respectfully ask you to give the State of Nebraska this additional opportunity to enact state legislation to protect our land, our water and our children's future," the mix of Republicans and Democrats — Sens. Colby Coash, Annette Dubas, Tony Fulton, Ken Haar and Kate Sullivan — wrote in the letter dated May 25.

"In stark contrast to the mature federal regulatory scheme for natural gas pipelines, federal regulation for oil pipelines is thus far inadequate," the letter continues. "This has created widespread uncertainty among members of the Nebraska Legislature regarding Nebraska's rights and responsibilities in the complex arena of pipeline regulation as we have wrestled with the Keystone [XL] pipeline over the past year."

Meanwhile, in a related matter, 34 U.S. House Democrats signed on to a June 1 letter penned by fellow Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee that asks the State Department to specifically drill down on a half-dozen Keystone XL issues, including an analysis of the impact of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions during a 50-year lifecycle span.

"In addition to the many concerns that members of Congress have expressed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has articulated significant concerns, many of which have yet to be addressed," the representatives wrote to Clinton and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

"When the EPA reviewed the draft [environmental impact statement] last year, they found the assessment to be inadequate and asked that a new EIS be conducted. In fact, EPA gave the draft EIS its lowest possible rating. After reviewing the [supplementary draft] EIS, we still do not believe that the State Department has sufficiently addressed EPA's concerns."

Few Teeth in New Cornhusker Law

Nebraska state Sen. Ken Haar, a left-leaning Democrat who represents a district near the state capital of Lincoln, wrote the letter to Clinton the day before the state's legislative session wrapped up for the year.

Advocates are convinced Haar could have gathered more signatures if he hadn't been rushed to send the correspondence to the nation's capital before state legislators scattered in separate directions last week. Under the rushed circumstances, he was joined by Fulton, a conservative Lincoln-area Republican; Coash, a moderate Lincoln-area Republican; and Dubas and Sullivan, both conservative Democrats from rural regions.

"The point is that this covers the political spectrum," Ken Winston, policy director with the Nebraska Sierra Club, told SolveClimate News in an interview. "Fulton usually fights Haar tooth, claw and nail on abortion and other social issues, but they're on the same side with this pipeline."

May 25 also was the day the states single legislative body — where each of the 49 members has the title senator — voted to pass a watered-down version of an oil pipeline reclamation bill. Essentially, all the measure delivers is a guarantee that a landowner's property will be "restored" after a pipe is installed underground.

"It's not a significant piece of legislation," Winston said about L.B. 629, which Sullivan sponsored. "It's not even clear that the type of soil that exists in the sandhills can be restored."

TransCanada maintains that pipeline liability legislation is not only unnecessary but also might conflict with parts of the U.S. Constitution regarding interstate commerce, company spokesman Shawn Howard told SolveClimate News in an e-mail response to questions.

"We are already liable for pipeline-related issues," Howard said, adding that such "responsibility is already confirmed with federal legislation."

Can Nebraska Legislators Recover in 2012?

Originally, what was touted as the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Reclamation and Recovery Act would have required pipeline operators to establish a trust fund for landowners to cover environmental damages. The idea was to mimic South Dakota's strict liability statute. But that section was stripped away as a compromise to keep the bill from languishing in the Natural Resources Committee.

As well, Winston and other watchdogs had high hopes for a couple of other pieces of legislation that never emerged from that same committee this year. One, they supported the idea of granting the already-existent Public Service Commission the authority to issue permits for oil pipelines. Two, they wanted the state to spell out financial insurance requirements as well as liability, cleanup and siting standards for pipeline builders so landowners would be protected in the case of leaks or spills or if the pipeline was decommissioned or abandoned.

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