Oil and Water in Nebraska: One Voice on the Campaign Trail Piping Up

Second in a series exploring the election-season dynamics surrounding a plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska

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Editor’s Note: In late September, SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Nebraska to find out more about the Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada plans to build to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. This is the second in a series. Read Part 1.

TransCanada’s plan to construct a 1,702-mile pipeline, a portion of which would cross Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer, recently entered the governor’s race. In early September, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman told a Nebraska reporter that he hadn’t focused on the pipeline “because it’s a federal regulatory issue. So I’ve let our congressional delegation deal with that.”

On the campaign trail, Democrat Mike Meister, an attorney challenging Heineman this fall, is calling his opponent on the carpet for his attitude about Keystone XL.

It’s the governor’s responsibility to be a bulldog on this issue, he said in a phone interview between campaign stops near the Niobrara River, adjacent to the proposed pipeline’s route.

“I hate for us to roll over and let this happen,” Meister said. “My biggest complaint is the route. TransCanada wants to save money by taking the most direct route possible, but it’s just a bad idea. The Ogallala Aquifer is paramount to the good health of this state and water is becoming more and more of a precious resource.”

Meister suggested that the newest pipeline be rerouted to the west or the east where it can run through clay soil and avoid the aquifer all together. To the east, he added, it could run parallel to a similar pipeline TransCanada completed in June.

Terry Cunha, a TranCanada spokesman, said in an interview that the company has no intention of rerouting Keystone XL at this juncture. He added that the company chose the shortest and most direct route that included the fewest number of landowners.

“TransCanada is putting a full-court press on everybody, and they’re not being honest with us,” Meister said, adding that the project will deliver very few benefits for Nebraskans.

He called the Canadian company’s threats to use eminent domain to gain access to private land the “absolute worst thing,” and said he was disappointed that the Omaha Federation of Labor is in favor of a project will provide few long-term or high-paying jobs for Nebraskans.

“Saying it’s a federal issue is the ultimate hypocrisy, and the Nebraska Legislature has a bad habit of doing this,” Meister said. “They scream about other issues but not this one, which is potentially the most important one.”

Why Aren’t Nebraska Legislators Taking Charge?

Most state legislators are evidently ignoring numbers from Bold Nebraska’s recent poll indicating that 76 percent of Nebraskans want more state regulations for pipelines and 81 percent want input on a statewide emergency response plan.

Republican state Sen. Tony Fulton, however, is in the tiny minority. In late August, the mechanical engineer wrote a letter to the State Department posing five specific questions about TransCanada’s safety plan. He wanted to know about pumping pressure and grade of steel pipe, if the pipeline could be relocated and who would cover cleanup costs in the event of a leak.

Whether or not Keystone XL is built, environmental groups are calling for the state legislature—composed of 49 senators—to pass specific measures requiring TransCanada to publicize its emergency response plan public, establish a fund to cover costs for damages, leaks and decommissioning, and pay for all affiliated infrastructure costs.

As it stands now, TransCanada is supposed to reimburse Nebraska for initially covering the $49 to $64 million cost to add transmission lines to the electric grid to power pipeline pumps.

In tandem, the groups want Nebraska to make it clear which state agencies have pipeline oversight; follow the lead of Montana and South Dakota by defining which areas of the state are off limits to oil pipelines; and tighten up its eminent domain law. Currently, Nebraska’s statute allows oil companies the authority to use eminent domain for pipelines and other related projects.

That could be a dicey venture, said Gould of Common Cause, because TransCanada spends a significant amount of money on a Lincoln lobbying firm that wines and dines state senators. Legislators serve part time and make about $12,000 annually, he added.

From 2006 through this year, TransCanada has paid Kissel/E&S Associates at least $331,817. Through June 2010, records indicate that the lobbying firm spent $2,366.85 on legislative entertainment this year. It isn’t an enormous sum, but a little outreach evidently goes a long way in the nation’s heartland.

“We’re trying to show how a giant corporation can come in, get eminent domain and force this pipeline down people’s throats,” Gould said.

Pipeline critics are encouraged that one state organization has registered opposition to Keystone XL. In mid-September the board of directors of the Lower Niobrara Natural Resources District voted against the project unanimously. The district covers five counties in northcentral Nebraska, near the South Dakota border.

Like the other 22 natural resource districts statewide, the one in Lower Niobrara is charged with protecting its water resources. Board members said they were opposed to TransCanada’s plans for “trenching” through the Ogallala and High Plains aquifers, the Keya Paha and Niobrara rivers, and other wetlands and wildlife habitats.

“If more natural-resources districts would follow their lead, it would carry a lot of weight, because they are seen as a local voice,” Kleeb said. “Nebraska is seen as a deep-red political state, but we protect our resources. Our farmers and our ranchers are our first conservationists.”

Tomorrow: Mostly quiet on the federal front, and overcoming the big bucks