Legislature finishes pipeline hearings

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November 8, 2011 - 6:00pm

The Legislature wrapped up three days of public hearings on oil pipeline regulation Wednesday, with wide-ranging discussion accompanying uncertainty about what, if anything, will result.

The Natural Resources Committee spent most of the day listening to testimony on a proposal by Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm. Haar's bill would bar oil pipelines from the Sandhills, the watersheds of certain trout streams, and areas where groundwater is within 10 feet of the surface for more than 10 miles.

Much of the testimony went beyond Haar's bill, to the dynamics behind TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and whether or not the Legislature will act to reroute it. Lincoln photographer Joel Sartore told senators the issue was not about jobs or the oil supply as pipeline supporters have maintained. Sartore suggested the issue had to be about money. "A few people stand to make a lot of money and they got to some of you guys a long time ago before you thought anybody would be aware of this. Sleepy little issue, no problem with Keystone One, here comes Keystone Two," he said. Sartore later acknowledged he didn't have any evidence that senators had been paid off.

Jefferson County farmer Charles Barber praised pipeline company TransCanada for its first Keystone project. The company's proposed new line generally goes farther west, but would go through his land again near the Kansas border. "They've been easy to work with. That's done our county a lot of good. Both school districts and roads," Barber said. "I'm sure everybody has concerns. You have to. But, again, they've treated me well. If they want to go through me a couple more times, that's fine."

Some critics say they oppose the proposed Keytone XL route but not the pipeline itself. But Alexandra Keriakedes of Lincoln, citing global warming, made no such distinction. "Where do we go from here? Well, we don't do anything that increases global warming, such as the processing of tar sands oil," she said. "It's not that it's just I'm opposed to the Keystone XL or any other oil pipeline. I'm opposed to all fossil fuels and means of transporting them."

Brigham McCowan, former head of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, downplayed any threat to water supplies from the pipeline. "After reviewing this project and consulting with my former colleagues at PHMSA, I'm confident that if approved, this pipeline will offer a level of protection above what the law requires," McCowan said. And, he added "I'm satisfied that this line will not pose a significant threat to the health, welfare and safety of the state of Nebraska or our nation as a whole."

Some of the testimony looked forward to what happens next, as the Natural Resources Committee decides which, if any, bills to send to the full Legislature. "We would hope that something meaningful will come out of this session, and we would urge the committee to forward something out," said Bruce Kennedy of Lincoln. "We would urge the Legislature as a whole to not adjourn until they come up with a statute that will deal with the problem."

But Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said any action might not come in time to affect the Keystone XL proposal. "I just want to state right upfront: We're hearing you. But sometimes the hands are tied," Christensen said. However, he added, "You're going to have impact on what happens in the future. I don't know if you're going to get the impact that you want on this one."

TransCanada lawyer Lee Hamann warned about legal liabilities if the Legislature acts just against TransCanada, by passing legislation with an emergency clause to take effect immediately. "The emergency clause in this bill really targets TransCanada. Because the only emergency is that we're ready to get started building our pipeline as soon as the presidential permit is in place," he said.

Natalie Peetz, a lobbyist for contruction and engineering Kiewit Corporation and energy company Tenaska, both of Omaha, warned against sending businesses the wrong signal about Nebraska. "All eyes are on Nebraska," she said, recounting a call she had received from a former economic development professional. "They were very concerned about what they've been working on for over three decades in terms of Nebraska's reputation," Peetz said. Referring to the state's pro-business reputation, she added "What it takes three decades to build up can be undone in a very short period of time. There's a lot of very nervous people out there both in Nebraska and outside that are watching what's happening here."

Pipeline critic Ben Gotschall of Lincoln pressed senators to act. "Sometimes it might feel like your hands are tied. But let's make sure it's not because you're sitting on them," he said.

The committee is expected to begin its deliberations on what to send to the full Legislature Thursday.




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