Nebraska lawmakers avoided a drawn-out political fight Thursday after a prominent critic of the planned Keystone XL pipeline backed away from his proposal to keep nearly all oil lines out of sandy-soil hills that sit atop an enormous U.S. water supply.
A plan to regulate major oil pipelines in Nebraska sailed through the second of three required votes. The bill by state Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton would place the state Public Service Commission in charge of pipeline developers who want to build in Nebraska.
Gov. Dave Heineman called the special session last month to address mounting worries that the proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline could leak and foul the Ogallala aquifer, a groundwater supply beneath Nebraska and parts of seven other states.
The $7 billion crude pipeline would move oil from Canada through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma before it connects with Texas Gulf Coast refineries. Debate over the pipeline has drawn international attention focused largely on Nebraska, and pipeline operator TransCanada announced Monday that it would voluntarily reroute the pipeline in the state after environmentalists and landowners protested its pathway through the rural Sandhills. But national environmental groups have said they will actively fight the project along any route, because of potential environmental threats.
State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, a critic of the pipeline, introduced an amendment Thursday that would have designated the Sandhills an "avoidance zone" and banned major oil pipelines from the area unless pipeline developers can show they have no reasonable alternative.
Haar later withdrew the amendment, after saying it reflected the will of Nebraska residents who testified last week during bill hearings aimed at oil pipelines.
"Real Nebraskans who attended the hearings and spoke on their own account sent an overwhelming message," Haar said. "They want it made clear that the Sandhills should be avoided -- avoided, not excluded."
Haar had introduced a bill earlier to create "exclusion zones" where pipes larger than 8 inches in diameter could not run. The measure would have prevented the Keystone XL from running through the Sandhills, certain cold water streams or other regions where groundwater is near the surface.
The proposal stayed in the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee, which has voted out two other bills to the Legislature.
State Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala warned that Haar's measure could undermine the state's agreement with TransCanada, which has garnered widespread support in the one-house Legislature and praise from Heineman.
"That's why it's rather disturbing to me to think that what we all have found that we can agree on, that we come back and see people wanting to move further down the road than where we are," Schilz said. "I think that's dangerous. We have to understand that, really, this is quite a fragile arrangement we have here. We need to make sure this moves forward. If we let this fall apart because of trying to do too much too soon, or too much at the wrong time, then shame on us."
Lawmakers are scheduled to end their special session Tuesday. Heineman is expected to sign the bills into law.
The State Department still has to approve or deny the entire Keystone XL project, because it crosses an international border. Last week the federal government delayed a decision on a federal permit for the project until it studies new potential routes that avoid the Sandhills area and the aquifer
Members of Bold Nebraska, which opposes the pipeline, said they were still concerned because lawmakers have not passed a measure that specifically protects the Sandhills. The group said TransCanada has not confirmed in writing that it will avoid the Sandhills.
Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada's president for energy and oil pipelines, committed verbally to rerouting the line Monday during a news conference to announce the agreement.
Dubas' bill would require petroleum pipeline developers to seek a permit from the state's Public Service Commission for lines larger than six inches in diameter. Companies would have to provide a description of the proposed pipeline route, why it was selected, descriptions of materials used, a plan to mitigate spill damages and other information.
State Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus also tried to insert language in the bill that would give Nebraska the right to lay fiber-optic cables for pipeline monitoring, safety and broadband for Internet services. Lawmakers rejected the amendment.