A week after a Canadian company agreed to reroute the Keystone XL oil pipeline out of the fragile Nebraska Sandhills, the initial relief felt by many Nebraskans has been tempered by the realization that the pipeline controversy is not over.
One of the many questions that remains unanswered is where the new route will go—and what protections will be provided for the people who live along its path. The legislature is expected to pass two pipeline bills on Tuesday, but neither offers any safeguards for landowners outside the Sandhills who may be affected by Keystone XL.
Rerouting the pipeline "represents a very substantial step forward," said Nebraska Farmers Union president John Hansen. "[But] from our standpoint, where we represent all landowners, we've sort of traded one set of landowners for another."
The Sandhills' sandy soils and high water table make it especially vulnerable to contamination from potential oil spills. But water tables are also high in much of the farmland outside the Sandhills. If TransCanada—the company that wants to build Keystone XL—buries the pipeline about five feet deep, as it intended to do in the Sandhills, then the pipeline could still be submerged in water for part of the year. The biggest fear of many landowners is that an oil spill would leak directly into their groundwater.
The first bill under discussion in the legislature would set aside $2 million so Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality can help the U.S. State Department study alternative Keystone XL routes through the state. As part of that process, Nebraska will conduct a new round of public hearings so the affected landowners can voice their concerns. The State Department is responsible for deciding whether to approve construction of Keystone XL, which could eventually transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The second bill would give Nebraska's Public Service Commission (PSC) authority to site oil pipelines within the state and ensure that eminent domain is used only for projects that have PSC approval. But that bill applies to only future oil pipelines, not the Keystone XL.
Hansen said the Farmers Union will help landowners affected by the new route, just as it helped the Sandhills ranchers. Among other things, it will hold information sessions to inform them of their legal rights, especially when it comes to eminent domain.
"We've learned from this last go-around," Hansen said.
Jane Kleeb, executive director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, expects some of the Sandhills ranchers—now experienced in negotiating with TransCanada—to mentor the newly affected landowners.
She said eminent domain will remain a major challenge during the rerouting process. But the fact that the politically conservative legislature is likely to pass both pipelines bills is "nothing short of a miracle," Kleeb said, and it's a testament to Nebraskans who spent the better part of four years working to protect the Sandhills. "I think this was a huge success for citizens."
New Route, Old Problems
Susan Luebbe, whose family runs a cattle ranch in southwest Holt County, on the eastern edge of the Sandhills, is among the Nebraskans who helped change the route—and she's prepared to fight again if necessary. Luebbe said her activism has put her in touch with concerned citizens from throughout the state.
"We feel like we have a big family now, and we're all in it together," she said in a phone interview last week.
Like many Nebraskans, Luebbe joined the pipeline fight to protect her land and water from potential oil spills. She's also angry at how TransCanada treated her family and others along the original route.
In the spring of 2008, TransCanada performed an aerial survey of her ranch without prior warning, Luebbe said. The helicopter flew so low that frightened cattle ran into a barbed-wire fence. Two calves were injured and "had to be stitched up."
Later, when she refused to sign the easement contract the company offered her, TransCanada threatened to take her land through eminent domain. The company didn't follow through on that threat, although it has begun eminent domain proceedings against landowners in other pipeline states.
"I know how they treated us—I can't see them getting people to sign" along the new route, Luebbe said.
So far it's unclear where the new route would run. "At this stage, we don't have a line on a map," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told InsideClimate News on Friday.
Many Nebraskans have suggested moving it 100 miles east, parallel to an existing TransCanada pipeline known as Keystone or Keystone I. That pipeline runs over clay-based soils that offer better protection against groundwater contamination.
Last week, TransCanada President Alex Pourbaix told reporters that the reroute would probably be more modest, requiring only 30 or 40 miles of additional pipeline. Since shifting the original route west would take Keystone XL further into the Sandhills, Pourbaix's suggestion would likely mean moving the pipeline east, into eastern Holt County.
A groundwater map from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows that eastern Holt County has the same shallow water table that makes the Sandhills so vulnerable. And it's also home to ranchers whose livelihoods depend on groundwater.