LINCOLN — The final state report on the rerouted Keystone XL oil pipeline appears to raise no serious red flags about safety, and touts the project's potential economic benefits in Nebraska.
Gov. Dave Heineman, who has said he supports the project as long as it avoids the environmentally sensitive Nebraska Sand Hills, now has 30 days to make a decision on the new route.
He declined to offer first impressions Friday, saying he needs time to read the report by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
The document, more than 2,000 pages long, makes no recommendation on whether the pipeline should be approved. But opponents of the controversial project questioned the validity of the department's findings and urged the governor and other state leaders to reject the reroute plan.
“We want them to follow through on their promise to protect our aquifer,” said Ken Winston, with the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club.
Because the underground pipeline would cross an international border, the U.S. State Department has the final say on the project. The $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline would carry crude oil, steamed out of tar sand deposits in Canada, some 1,700 miles to oil refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Many elected leaders and environmentalists objected to the pipeline's initial route through the northeastern part of the Nebraska Sand Hills, fearing a spill could quickly penetrate porous soils and contaminate underground water supplies in the Ogallala Aquifer.
TransCanada, the pipeline builder and operator, changed the route in an effort to address those concerns.
The executive summary of the report says the new route avoids the Sand Hills, though it still runs above parts of the Ogallala Aquifer. If the pipeline does fail, spills are not expected to cause widespread pollution, said Mike Linder, director of the Department of Environmental Quality.
“Even a localized release can still have environmental impact,” Linder said. “But we wouldn't envision a large, regional contamination.”
The agency's task was to gather public comments and other information related to the new route, not express an opinion or recommendation, Linder said.
The agency held four public information meetings and a public hearing last year, collecting nearly 4,000 verbal and written comments over a seven-month period. Those comments had a major influence on the pipeline route and commitments made by TransCanada.
For example, public comments led to a route adjustment north of the Niobrara River in Keya Paha County to avoid fragile soils not included in the agency's map of the Sand Hills, Linder said. In addition, the company moved the route in two other places because of concerns department staff members raised about the pipeline's proximity to wells.
Among other key findings in the report:
» TransCanada would be responsible for an emergency response plan for spill cleanup. In the event of a spill, appropriate authorities would have timely access to the chemicals added to the bitumen — the thick oil extracted from tar sands — so it can flow in a pipeline.
» TransCanada has agreed to 57 special conditions that would further ensure pipeline integrity and safety. A federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, will be responsible for enforcing the conditions.
» Pipeline construction would result in $418.1 million in economic benefits and would support up to 4,560 new or existing jobs in the state. TransCanada expects to employ 270 Nebraska workers during construction, or 110 average annual jobs.
» The project would generate $16.5 million in use taxes related to construction.
» The project would generate between $11 million and $13 million in annual local property tax revenue in its first full year of valuation.
A leading opponent of the pipeline, Jane Kleeb of the environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska, questioned why the report didn't also list the potential economic costs to Nebraska. For example, landowners along the route could suffer property devaluation from a spill, to say nothing about the costs they would incur if contaminated water prevented them from irrigating crops or watering livestock.
Kleeb also pointed out that, earlier in the week, a Lancaster County District Court judge overruled the state's motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the rerouting process. That means the governor faces a legal risk if he approves the route before a final court ruling, she said.
“The bottom line remains 'Why are we risking our water — the main source of our state's economy — for a foreign export pipeline?' ” she said.
Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska, meanwhile, applauded the report and urged the governor to approve the new route.
“It is time to build the pipeline and bring good-paying jobs and economic opportunity to Nebraska,” said Brad Stevens, the group's state director.
TransCanada spokesman Grady Semmens stressed the new route avoids the Sand Hills and crosses fewer miles of erodible soils and endangered species habitat. Otherwise, the company needs more time to review the report before offering specific comments.
“We have made significant strides to work with Nebraskans to identify the safest route possible for this pipeline project, and we look forward to hearing from Gov. Heineman regarding this report,” Semmens said.
An executive summary of the report is available at pipeline.nebraska.gov.
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