Gov. Dave Heineman and critics said Thursday they were happy that the State Department will delay approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline for at least a year while it reviews alternative routes. But the effect on the Legislature's special session, and the ultimate fate of the pipeline, remains unclear.
In announcing the delay, the State Department specifically cited concern about the Nebraska Sandhills and the groundwater in saying it needed to examine alternative routes. Kerri-Ann Jones, an assistant secretary of state, explained the decision in a conference call. "The concerns of the people are a legitimate factor to respond to," Jones said. "This area in Nebraska is a resource for the people. We heard loud and clear that it's been a unique area for the state, and the alternative route that we examine will be different from anything we have looked at before.
"The other piece of this is that the state officials - the governor and the legislators are very concerned to the point where they have gone into a special session to see what can they do to try to put some kind of regulatory framework in place because they don't have this," Jones added.
Meanwhile, Gov. Dave Heineman said Nebraskans were being listened to. "The good news is, I think we have been heard. And Nebraskans should be very excited about that. Because many times, citizens all across this country wonder whether their voices are heard - do they count? They counted on this one," he declared.
Heineman mentioned testimony at public meetings held by the State Department in Lincoln and Atkinson, his own meetings with State Department officials, his call of a special legislative session, and public participation in hearings this week as adding to the pressure.
Jane Kleeb, executive director of the group Bold Nebraska, which opposes the pipeline and has criticized Heineman for not taking a more active role, was more focused in her praise. "The only people who deserve credit for this victory are the landowners and citizens of Nebraska," Kleeb said. "There have been lots of fights that environmental and energy groups have waged on big oil. And I don't think any of them have seen the victory that we've seen today."
Meanwhile, Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, a pro-pipeline group, called the State Department's decision "at best, a disappointment. At worst, it is an example of elected officials playing politics instead of finding solutions." The group bemoaned the delay in positive impacts on Nebraska's economy, including creating an estimated 7,500 Nebraska jobs, a figure pipeline critics have said is exaggerated.
Kleeb said the State Department's delay should not cause lawmakers to cut short their special session to enact pipeline siting legislation. "What's to say that tomorrow another pipeline company will not want to come to our state?" she asked, adding that legislators "have a job to do. They have to put oil pipeline regulations in place so our citizens are never in a situation again where they are on pins and needles."
Heineman said he wants to think about what should happen next, and besides, it's up to the Legislature. The governor can call the Legislature into session, but only senators can decide it's time to adjourn. Legislative Speaker Mike Flood said he's not sure what will happen. "I have to visit with my colleagues. I need to look at Sen. Langemeier's LB4 over the weekend and I don't think we're going to know until Monday morning where this is going. But at this point, the debate will start at 1:30 on Monday afternoon," Flood said.
Langemeier's bill, advanced to the full Legislature Wednesday night, would give the governor authority to approve or disapprove pipeline routes. Heineman refused to say what he thinks of it, other than it's "a good start."
In a written statement, pipeline company TransCanada's President Russell Girling said the company would work with the State Department to discuss the next steps. Girling said eight different routes in Nebraska have already been studied, including one that would have avoided the entire Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer, and six that would have reduced the mileage there. Griling said TransCanada hopes that work will serve as the starting point for additional review and help expedite the process.
For his part, Heineman said he wasn't ready to declare victory in the quest to reroute the pipeline. "I'm cautiously optimistic but I'm concerned. This is not a done deal," he said. "They're going to go through a review and look at other potential routes. They've said that. But there are a number of decisions they could come to. And so we need to keep a watchful eye on what the State Department's doing."
Heineman did say the fact that the delay had come from the State Department probably lessens any legal liability for Nebraska. The State Department's announcement said its review could be completed as early as the first quarter of 2013.