The Legislature passed and Gov. Dave Heineman signed bills Tuesday to regulate the location of oil pipelines in the state, setting the stage for the first test of the legislation.
There was no debate and no opposition as the Legislature passed the two bills. One is designed to find a new route for TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline that avoids the Sandhills. It requires a new environmental impact statement and approval by the governor. The other bill sets up a process for the Public Service Commision to approve the proposed routes of future pipelines.
At a signing ceremony, it was all smiles as Sen. Chris Langemeier, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, distributed praise for what the Legislature accomplished in its special session. "I want to thank everybody that participated and thank you, governor," Langemeier said. "It's been a hard 15 days (the number of working days in the session) and we got through it, and the Unicam should be a model to all politics around the world that we can solve major problems in Nebraska in a pretty timely manner."
At a news conference a few minutes later, pipeline opponent Randy Thompson was a little less diplomatic. "I'd very much like to be a chiropractor in Lincoln tomorrow morning. Because I'm sure there's going to be a lot of backslapping and chest pounding and people stepping forward to take credit for what has happened in the special session," Thompson said, adding "Let's make it perfectly clear who is responsible: the citizens of Nebraska."
The day's events marked the end of an extraordinary chapter in the saga of the controversial pipeline, which is supposed to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas.
Courtesy Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
This video shows the Canadian tar sands in Alberta, where the oil for the current Keystone pipeline originates and where the oil for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would come from.
The proposed route in Nebraska through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer raised concerns about leaks and damage to the land among some environmentalists and landowners. But last Spring bills to control pipeline routing remained bottled up in the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee.
Over the summer, as suggestions surfaced to call a special session, Gov. Dave Heineman remained reluctant to call a session, citing a lack of support. But as opposition the proposed route continued, the governor changed his mind and called a special session.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department announced it would delay its permitting decision, citing environmental concerns in Nebraska. Finally last week, legislative Speaker Mike Flood brokered a deal to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills in exchange for an expedited state environmental review.
Ron Kaminski of the Laborers International Union local 1140, which supports the pipeline for the construction jobs it will bring, said he's optimistic: "I just hope the state -- the governor and the Department of Environmental Quality - get to work on this as soon as possible, so we can get this approved by the state, hopefully May of next year, so we can start construction next summer," Kaminski said.
The U.S. State Department has said it won't decide on a permit for the overall project until the first quarter of 2013 at the earliest. But TransCanada officials have said they hope that can be speeded up. Spokesman Shawn Howard said getting the proposed rerouting approved by Nebraska is the first step. "Now that the laws have been signed into effect I'm sure there will be phone calls that start today to arrange meetings," he said.
For some pipeline opponents, getting the route out of the Sandhills is triumph enough. But others like Jane Kleeb, executive director of the group BOLD Nebraska, have a broader definition what would constitute victory. "I think for many of us that's always been a dual track. It's one, having comprehensive, state-based regulations that not only protect our land and water but also protect landowners. And then, on a federal level, it means stopping this pipeline," she said.
With thirst for new sources of oil and jobs weighing against concern about carbon emissions and oil leaks, the battle over the pipeline will continue in the coming year.