A crowd filled the Capitol hearing room and overflowed into another as the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee began its hearings.
The first bill up was a proposal by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton. She wants to give the Nebraska Public Service Commission authority to approve or disapprove proposed pipeline routes. With TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline up for federal approval, Dubas said it's essential for the state to act.
"We cannot leave this special session without enacting effective and constitutional legislation regarding the routing of oil pipelines in our state," she said.
Johnnie Adcox, NET News
Sen. Annette Dubas testifies at the Natural Resources Committee public hearing
The hearing was structured so that supporters of Dubas's legislation all testified before opponents were heard. But in a press conference beforehand, opponents previewed their arguments.
Among them was Robert Jones, TransCanada's vice president of Keystone pipelines. Jones was asked what TransCanada would do if Dubas's bill passes.
"If LB1 passes as is, I would be surprised, and I think it would be a hypothetical for me to answer," Jones said. "We believe that the members of the Legislature are going to use sound reason and judgment and they won't be passing LB1 as it sits today."
Another opponent of the bill, Andy Black of the Association of Oil Pipelines, was more explicit.
"AOPL believes any siting legislation should be prospective only. Bills should not affect any project that has relied upon existing state laws or been subject to extensive federal environmental review," he said. "Adopting legislation to thwart a project at the eleventh hour would be discriminatory, punitive, and vulnerable to legal challenge."
But lawyer Alan Peterson, who wrote an opinion supporting the legislation for the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club, downplayed any possible financial consequences.
"The risk in this case of losing a lawsuit doesn't have a lot of zeros on it," he said. "I don't think you'd lose it. But I mean I don't want to get into advocacy here - I'm just trying to lay out the issues fairly, and without exaggerating but also without underestimating.
"Sure, there could be a lawsuit. Possibly you could lose," he continued, adding, "It might well be worth the fight."
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, a member of the Natural Resources Committee, said one pipeline has been operating across the southern portion of the state since 1952 without significant safety problems.
"The Platte pipeline does cross, east to west, the full length of the Ogallala Aquifer," he said. "And if you want to stay to the soils map, and go to Lincoln County, it's identical to some of the areas of the Sandhills that we're looking at here."
Christensen said the Platte pipeline carries up to 162 thousand barrels a day. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry an estimated 700 thousand barrels. Susan Seacrest, founder and former head of the Groundwater Foundation, a nonprofit educational and advocacy organization groundwater, said that raises the stakes.
"This is a very high risk operation. It's a very large pipeline. It's going through a very large part of our state through an aquifer that we all agree is critically important to our identity of our state and to who we are as a state and to the economic future of our state," Seacrest said. "I don't think anybody could argue that the risks aren't there. I'm just saying that Sen. Dubas's bill gives us another tool in our toolbox."
Dubas's bill is one of five proposal that have been submitted on the pipeline issue. Hearings are scheduled to continue for the next two days.