LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers convened a special session Tuesday to consider new oil pipeline regulations, including legislation that would give the state greater say over the route of a proposed pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada to Texas.
Although conservatives who are typically supportive of energy companies dominate Nebraska politics, many legislators and Republican Gov. Dave Heineman have expressed concern about the planned route of the Keystone XL pipeline through the Ogallala aquifer, which is a major source of drinking water for eight states.
Lawmakers are expected to consider a measure proposed by state Sen. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton, that would allow the state's Public Service Commission to determine whether such projects fit the state's economic and natural resource interests, and whether they protect the welfare of Nebraska residents.
The legislation carefully avoids addressing pipeline safety concerns, which are the purview of the federal government. Dubas said her bill, the Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act, aims to avoid constitutional and legal concerns raised by pipeline supporters.
"We do understand the federal government has jurisdiction over those (safety) issues," Dubas said. "We're not looking to step into their territory."
Lawmakers convened for 16 minutes Tuesday before adjourning for the day. The special session is expected to last about three weeks.
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood said it's "possible, but not likely" that lawmakers will adjourn without legislation. Lawmakers can end the session if one member moves to adjourn and a majority vote in favor.
"I think lawmakers want to get through the public hearing process, and then make a decision . . . as to what should happen," he said.
Passing a bill requires a simple majority. But legislation that would affect the Keystone XL pipeline — scheduled for federal approval or denial by year's end — would have to take effect immediately. Such a proposal would need support from 33 of the Legislature's 49 members, plus Heineman's approval.
TransCanada, the pipeline's Canadian-based developer, said the project will reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. But a coalition of environmentalists, land owners, and state lawmakers fear the pipeline could leak and contaminate the Ogallala aquifer.
The project has undergone a three-year federal review and is waiting for the U.S. State Department, which is involved because the pipeline would cross an international boundary, to approve or deny a permit that would allow construction to proceed.
The courts have upheld Congress' authority to regulate oil pipeline safety, and they may ultimately have to decide how much, if any, influence individual states can exert over pipeline routes. Lawyers for TransCanada and for those who oppose the Keystone XL project have submitted conflicting arguments in legal briefs on the subject.
If Nebraska were to pass legislation that would give it control over pipeline routes, it would almost certainly be challenged by TransCanada or other states that would benefit from tax revenue the project would generate.
The $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline would carry oil derived from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas. The pipeline would travel through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
Jane Kleeb, executive director of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, said Nebraskans who oppose the pipeline generally wanted legislation that would address eminent domain concerns for pipelines and spell out state authority to move pipelines away from ecologically sensitive areas, such as the Ogallala aquifer. Kleeb said she was surprised Heineman had not yet offered a proposal of his own.
"I think it's shocking that Gov. Heineman wasn't here today," Kleeb said. "If he was serious about what he said — that the pipeline through the aquifer is risky, that the route should be changed — then he should have been here today. Instead, he's nowhere to be found."
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln said he will introduce two additional bills this week: One that would require TransCanada to post a $500 million bond for the state if the company fails to clean up a spill, and one that would require companies to get a permit before they could use eminent domain to make way for projects like the Keystone XL.
Avery said his proposals would apply to all pipeline projects in Nebraska, and not just the Keystone XL. He said lawmakers would likely introduce four to six bills dealing with various aspects of pipeline regulation. Hearings on the bills begin next week.