The Legislature gave first-round approval Wednesday to a bill authorizing a two-million dollar, state-funded study of a new route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The vote marked the first endorsement by the full Legislature of the deal Speaker Mike Flood worked out with pipeline company TransCanada. The company pledged to propose a new route that avoids the Sandhills, and the state said it would expedite an environmental review that's expected to take six to nine months.
State taxpayers will will pay the estimated 2 million dollar cost. Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln questioned that. She pointed out that in existing law, parties with an interest in a process often pay costs -- from companies with rate cases before the Public Service Commission to people with lawsuits paying court costs. "It seems a little inequitable to me that we're waiving those kind of existing models that have worked well and that have worked free of any sort of conflict or undue influence for a large company," Conrad said.
Flood said it didn't even sit well with residents of Holt County that TransCanada paid to rent the gymnasium in Atkinson where a public hearing was held. He said he wants to avoid accusations the company would have undue influence over the new environmental review.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery supported Flood's position. "We need to make sure that the citizens of this state understand that what we're doing here is above reproach, it is completely transparent, and it is something we control and TransCanada does not have an opportunity to contaminate the process," he said.
Omaha Sen. Brenda Council asked Flood how his proposal meshes with one in another bill for future pipelines. Flood's bill would require the governor to say whether he approves the new route for pipelines that undergo an additional environmental review, like the Keystone XL. The bill for future pipelines requires approval by the Public Service Commission.
Council said those requirements could conflict. But Flood said his proposal will remain on the books as an option for further review of future pipelines. "This is another line of defense for the citizens to make sure that their governor weighs in on a supplemental environmental impact statement. And I don't see them in conflict," he said. "I think it makes sure that the applicant has to deal with every regulatory step that we require and this is another step that's available. And it also makes it permissive.
In other words, in addition to review by the Public Service Commission, the state could require its own environmental impact statement and gubernatorial approval for future pipelines, but it wouldn't have to.
Flood's proposal got first round approval on a vote of 45-0. The bill on future pipelines is up for debate Thursday. The special session is expected to end next Tuesday.