In Nebraska, Oil Pipeline Builder Keeping Deal for Landowners Secret

When "voluntary" agreements to allow pipeline to cross private property fail, TransCanada goes to court

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WASHINGTON—It’s evidently the same document. But when a grassroots organization refers to it as a gag order and a large corporation calls it a nondisclosure agreement, it’s clear that neither is on exactly the same page.

That’s the predicament unfolding in Nebraska these days as TransCanada tries to speed up preparations for building a controversial pipeline that will carry oil almost 1,700 miles from the tar sand beds of Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas.

Some of the Nebraska landowners along the Keystone XL pipeline route are reportedly attending a series of meetings in the eastern half of the state this week to learn the details of how much TransCanada might compensate them for signing an easement to allow the pipeline to cut across their property.

The catch is that they are reportedly required to sign a nondisclosure agreement to attend the meetings and anti-pipeline activists claim that’s unfair.

They fear that landowners who don’t sign the “gag order” or don’t agree with the terms of initial negotiations with TransCanada will be told that the Calgary, Alberta-based firm will instead initiate eminent domain proceedings to gain access to their property.

What makes this matter more confusing is that a spokesman for TransCanada told SolveClimate News in an interview Tuesday evening that his company did not organize this week’s three meetings.

Instead, they were called by Landowners for Fairness, a subgroup that is trying to negotiate a deal with TransCanada for its 100 members who live along nearly 100 miles of the pipeline’s proposed route that stretches almost 300 north-to-south miles in Nebraska.

Evidently, a majority of the 470 or so landowners along the route are negotiating with TransCanada independently. The organizer of Landowners for Fairness, lawyer Stan Dobrovolny, has told activists that while he is opposed to the pipeline, he has worked since late last year to negotiate the most palatable and lucrative deal possible for Nebraskans.

Marty Cobenais, an organizer with the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network, was driving to Nebraska Tuesday afternoon when SolveClimate News tracked him down for an interview.

“This is not a fair negotiation policy saying that you have to sign a disclosure to come into a meeting,” Cobenais said about the tactic called for at the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evening meetings in the Nebraska communities of York, Greeley and Atkinson. “If this was a union, this wouldn’t be allowed.”

TransCanada Plugging Away

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said the company continues to work with landowners on Keystone’s second phase, called Keystone XL. He explained that laying a total of 37,000 miles of pipeline across North America has given the company experience with 40,000 landowners thus far.

When TransCanada built the first phase of the pipeline—called Keystone and already operating—Cunha explained that the company acquired easements from 98 percent of the 450-plus contiguous landowners in Nebraska, resorting to eminent domain procedures with the remaining two percent.

In a Sept. 11 opinion piece in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star, vice president of Keystone Pipelines Robert Jones wrote that TransCanada’s policy is to treat “all landowners with respect and fairness.” An easement allows TransCanada to construct and operate an underground pipeline, he wrote, adding that the landowners retain property ownership.

“Our strong preference is to reach voluntary agreements,” Jones wrote. “We utilize eminent domain only as a last resort. While the legal process is an important backstop, we would prefer not to use it.”

U. S. Senator Intervention

Advocacy groups, however, aren’t the only ones focusing on TransCanada’s recent negotiating tactics.

First-term Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., intervened on behalf of his constituents after TransCanada admitted in August to urging property owners to sign easements within 30 days or face land condemnation proceedings.

“In my letter, I ask TransCanada to immediately lift any deadlines imposed on Nebraska landowners and to negotiate in good faith,” Johanns said about the sharply worded Aug. 11 letter he sent to TransCanada’s president and chief executive officer Russell Girling.

As well, Johanns posed questions about planned safeguards for the Ogallala Aquifer and the rigors of the permit review process. The aquifer is one of Nebraska’s major drinking water sources.

As it stands now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is responsible for granting a thumbs up or down on a permit for the $7 billion project because of the pipeline’s international nature. Initially, a decision was expected this autumn.

However, that process was slowed in July when a cooperating agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, called the State Department’s draft environmental impact statement inadequate. Deficiencies EPA officials cited included greenhouse gas emissions affiliated with the pipeline, safety and spill-response planning and the impact on Canada’s indigenous communities. Conservation organizations have voiced concern about the effects on northern forests and Nebraska’s sandhills landscape, which erodes easily.

What Nebraska Polls Say

Poll numbers released Tuesday (Sept. 14) show that 48 percent of Nebraskans oppose the as-yet-unbuilt Keystone XL pipeline, with 19 percent supporting it and 33 percent undecided. Three advocacy organizations, Bold Nebraska, Nebraska Wildlife and the Nebraska Sierra Club, funded that survey.

That same poll revealed that 84 percent of Nebraskans want elected officials to ask questions about the pipeline; 76 percent want more state regulations for the pipeline; and 81 percent want input on a statewide emergency response plan.

TransCanada released its own poll Sept. 13 indicating that 69 percent of Nebraskans support Keystone XL. Hickman Analytics Inc., based in Chevy Chase, Md., interviewed 600 state residents via telephone Aug. 25-29 to compile its survey numbers.

(Photo: MONGO)