LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska regulators Monday approved a Keystone XL oil pipeline route through the state, breathing new life into the long-delayed $8 billion project, although the chosen pathway is not the one preferred by the pipeline operator and could require more time to study the changes.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission's vote also is likely to face court challenges and may require another federal analysis of the route, if project opponents get their way.
"This decision opens up a whole new bag of issues that we can raise," said Ken Winston, an attorney representing environmental groups that have long opposed the project.
Environmental activists, American Indian tribes and some landowners have fought the project since it was proposed by TransCanada Corp in 2008. It would carry oil from Canada through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to meet the existing Keystone pipeline, where it could move as far as the U.S. Gulf Coast. Business groups and some unions support the project as a way to create jobs and reduce the risk of shipping oil by trains that can derail.
President Barack Obama's administration studied the project for years before finally rejecting it in 2015 because of concerns about carbon pollution. President Donald Trump reversed that decision in March.
“More than anything else the Keystone XL Pipeline is an important piece of energy security infrastructure," said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. "This project displaces oil from hostile countries, like Venezuela, with that from a friendly country, like Canada. It’s also important to remember that the completion of the Keystone XL provides additional options for Bakken crude once it comes online."
The route approved 3-2 by the Nebraska commission would be five miles longer than the one TransCanada preferred and would require an additional pumping station. Commissioners who voted for it said the alternative route would affect less rangeland for endangered species. The commission was not allowed to take into account a leak last week of 210,000 gallons from the existing Keystone pipeline onto South Dakota farmland because pipeline safety is a federal responsibility.
“After nearly a decade of delay, the Keystone XL Pipeline is now moving again,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “This pipeline project is important energy infrastructure for our nation that will create jobs and economic growth and make our nation more secure by reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Building newer and better infrastructure is safer and will provide our country with the infrastructure we need now and in the future.”
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling issued a statement after the ruling saying the company would study "how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project."
TransCanada has said that it would announce in late November or early December whether to proceed with the pipeline — which would carry an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil a day — and would take into account the Nebraska decision and whether it has lined up enough long-term contracts to ship oil.
The company submitted three proposed routes to the Nebraska commission. The preferred route would have taken a more direct diagonal north to south path across the state and a third route was rejected because it would have crossed the environmentally-fragile Sandhills area.
Keystone XL would expand the existing Keystone pipeline network that went into service in July 2010. The current pipeline runs through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas and extends east into Missouri and Illinois.
More than 90 percent of Nebraska landowners along TransCanada's preferred route have agreed to let the company bury the pipeline beneath their property, but those who oppose it have managed to thwart the project for years. Approval of the route gives TransCanada the ability to seize the land of holdout landowners through eminent domain. The company has said it will use eminent domain only as a last resort.
The approved route would follow the path the company prefers through four northern Nebraska counties. But instead of turning south as company officials had hoped, it would continue southeast to the path of the original Keystone pipeline. The new Keystone XL would then run parallel to the original Keystone pipeline to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect to an existing pump station.
"We see many benefits to maximizing the co-location of the Keystone XL pipeline with Keystone I," the Commission majority wrote. "It is in the public interest for the pipelines to be in closer proximity to each other, so as to maximize monitoring resources and increase the efficiency of response times."
Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Alliance, a pipeline opposition group, said her coalition still needed to review its options, but added, "We will stand and fight every inch of the way."
The federal government has a say in whether the pipeline is built because it crosses an international border from Canada. Opponents hope the change in the route through Nebraska will require a new review by the U.S. State Department.
“Today’s decision complicates TransCanada’s plans for the Keystone XL pipeline. Nebraska did issue a permit, but it wasn't the one that TransCanada wanted. While it isn’t clear what this ultimately means for TransCanada’s ability to build, one thing is certain — people who oppose the new pipeline will throw everything they have got at stopping it," said Greenpeace tar sands campaigner Rachel Rye Butler.
"The movement that has stood up for nearly a decade to resist Keystone XL will not back down. Greenpeace isn’t throwing in the towel. The climate can’t handle another tar sands pipeline," she said.
A State Department spokeswoman said via email Monday that the agency was aware of the Nebraska commission's vote and was gathering information to decide if the decision would affect the federal permit Trump approved.
-- Bismarck Tribune staff contributed to this story.