The Legislature began a special session Tuesday to address oil pipeline legislation, with one definite proposal so far, and a lot of uncertainty about the outcome.
Even before he offered a prayer to open the special session, Sen. LaVon Heidemann of Elk Creek reflected on the job the people of Nebraska expect the Legislature to do: "I believe they sent us down here not to put our finger in the air and to judge which way the political winds is blowing and to go that direction. Wouldn't that be easy to gather up the emails and the letters, the telephone calls, and whoever wins get the legislation up and running and then go home?" Heidemann asked. "I don't believe that's the way it's supposed to be. I believe we were sent down by the 1.8 million people, us 49, to do the right thing," he added.
But just what the right thing is, at this point, will be the subject of debate for the next several weeks.
Opponents of the TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline want legislation that will prevent it from cutting through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer, which they fear could be polluted by a spill.
Supporters of the pipeline say it will provide jobs and a friendly source of oil, and accuse opponents of fear-mongering.
As the session got underway, Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas introduced a proposal that would give the Nebraska Public Service Commission authority to approve or disapprove pipeline routing proposals. The commission would have eight months to decide after receiving an application.
Dubas cautioned that pipeline critics might not be satisfied. "Certainly it seems that public opinion is definitely wanting some changes made to the route. But I've also said that even if we pass this legislation there's no guarantee that the route changes," she said. "We're putting a process in place but we can't guarantee the outcome of a process."
TransCanada has said it would be unfair for the state to enact siting legislation as it nears the end of a three-year federal approval process. And a legal analysis done for the company threatens that Nebraska could be liable for billions of dollars in damages. Dubas says it will be up to the Legislature to evaluate all that.
Public hearings on her bill and any others that are introduced in the next couple of days are expected next week, and Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood predicts the session could take three weeks.
So far, Gov. Dave Heineman, who favors moving the pipeline and called the special session, has not indicated he will introduce a proposal. The Nebraska Democratic Party accused the Republican governor of a lack of leadership on the issue; the governor had no response.
The Democratic party itself has not taken a position on the pipeline, which is supported by many in the labor movement and opposed by many environmentalists.
Flood, a Republican, recommended against calling a session, saying an earlier version of the bill by Dubas, a Democrat, raised serious legal questions. Flood says he doesn't want to venture a guess as to whether the session now underway will produce anything. "I don't want to prejudge that. I don't know. We're in uncharted territory with this type of special session and I'm committed to keeping an open mind," Flood said. "Obviously I weighed in before the process, the governor chose to call a special session and Senator Dubas has reworked her bill. That among many other factors create an uncertain environment that you don't know what will happen."
To see a copy of Dubas's bill, with language that would be added to existing law underlined, click here