Regulators clear path for pipeline, opponents vow fight won’t end

Jane Kleeb with Bold Nebraska speaks after the Nebraska Public Service Commission announced its approval on an alternative route for the Keystone XL pipeline on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Photo by James Wooldridge

Canadian tar sands oil will soon flow through Nebraska soil—only it will have to follow an unexpected path.

In a 3-2 decision Monday morning, the Nebraska Public Service Commission approved an alternative route for TransCanada’s controversial and long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline. The decision dismayed some who worry about land rights and the safety of resources like the Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer. Others felt relief that they’d finally see much-needed tax money, jobs and energy independence in the state and country.

For Lucio Tellez, it’s a satisfying end to a long journey through public testimonies and fiery debates.

“All our hard work is paying off,” said Tellez, an Omaha field representative of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents about 600 Nebraskan laborers.

The new route, an alternative from the one preferred by TransCanada, veers east once it enters Nebraska and then parallels the existing Keystone I pipeline. It would affect six new counties and run through the land of about 40 new Nebraskans, opponents said.

Anti-pipeline activists say the decision may put more obstacles in the way of the multi-billion dollar project. They believe the selected route will require a new application and studies while costing TransCanada more money and providing opponents with additional ammunition.

“This decision opens up a whole new bag of issues that we can raise,” said Ken Winston, an attorney representing environmental groups opposing the pipeline.

TransCanada’s president and chief executive officer Russ Girling said in a statement the company would “conduct a careful review of the Public Service Commission’s ruling while assessing how the decision would impact the cost and schedule of the project.”

The decision came just six minutes after commissioners took their seats Monday morning. Only commissioner Crystal Rhoades offered a statement, which outlined her objections to the majority decision.

As the gavel rang out at 10:06 a.m., some in the crowded hearing room gasped and wept. With tears in her eyes, Jane Kleeb knelt and consoled landowners. Minutes later she promised them this wasn’t the end.

“We are resolute in stopping this pipeline,” said the president of Bold Nebraska, an organization that’s fought Keystone XL since its founding in 2010. “There is not a single person in this fight who will go home today and say this fight is over.”

Pipeline opponents embrace after the Nebraska Public Service Commission approved an alternative route of Keystone XL Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Photo by James Wooldridge.

Downstairs, in a second-floor overflow room, Tellez and 14 other labor union members dressed in matching orange shirts, shook hands as they stifled big grins, aware of the room full of pipeline opponents. The pipeline, albeit an alternative route, was approved.

“It’s going to put food on the table,” said Sam Renshaw, a business manager for LIUNA!. “For every hour they work they’ll put $5.50 into their health and welfare. For every hour they work they’ll put $4.10 into their pension. They’ll make a good living with lots of hours to feed their families.”

Upstairs as Kleeb consoled her dismayed friends, she announced that this was their victory, despite the pipeline’s approval.

“We beat TransCanada,” she said. “They do not get their preferred route—the route we’ve been fighting in courts for eight years. What is wrong and what we will continue to fight is that this pipeline is still on the table.”

Tribal Chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Larry Wright Jr. said that while Monday morning’s vote was disappointing, the Native tribes across the United States and Canada won’t step down. When their land, resources, sacred sites and burial grounds are at stake, they have only one choice.

“The resolve is to stand and fight until there’s no more fight left,” Wright said.

Cathie Genung of Holt County, one of many landowners embroiled in legal battles with TransCanada over its right to take Nebraskans’ land by eminent domain, isn’t backing down either.

“If anything it probably gives everyone more impetus to fight this,” she said.

Brian Jorde, an attorney representing Bold Nebraska, would not elaborate on what might come next, saying he had to review the commission’s 40-double-sided pages of opinion before he and his clients make any decisions. He said one possibility, though, is that the new alternative route may require a new application and study from the State Department. Kleeb also said opponents are willing to appeal the case to federal court.

Liuna! Union workers wait for the Public Service Commission’s announcement on its decision on an alternative route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline on Monday, November 20, 2017. Photo by Alyssa Mae.

Jorde said while today was a big step forward for pipeline opposition, their work is not done. Most of the pipeline route will now be along a path they feel more comfortable with, but 40 percent of it still threatens the fragile Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer, a water table that extends eight states and provides water for 30 percent of the nation’s crops.

“We’re 60 percent of the way home,” Jorde said. “There’s 40 percent more work to do, but we’re further ahead than we were before.”

Not everyone shares his optimism.

“I’m devastated,” said Shannon Graves, a landowner in York County. “This pipeline is set to go 275 feet from the side of my house and we all know what happens when they put pipelines in the ground. They leak. Just like what happened last week, it’s too easy to remember.”

Four days before the Nebraska Public Service Commission issued their ruling, another TransCanada pipeline, Keystone I, leaked 210,000 gallons of oil near Amherst, South Dakota. Clean up was still in progress as Monday’s hearing began.

The Nebraska Legislature mandated that the five-person commission determine if the pipeline would be in Nebraska’s “public interest,” while prohibiting consideration of the project’s safety.

Ponca Tribal Chairman Wright can’t understand why.

Last Thanksgiving he watched police and company security agents manhandle unarmed people protesting the construction of a pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation. One year later, a spill coats a section of South Dakota grassland in black oil. Now, he said, a commission in Lincoln has ignored his people’s pleas and the evidence of danger in front of them.

“That’s exactly what we’re talking about,” Wright said, referring to the spill. “To say that those kinds of things couldn’t be considered during the hearing in this process makes no sense.”

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Wright after the hearing, Art Tanderup, a farmer in Neligh, Nebraska, was emotional in his own response.

“We have to protect [the Ogallala Aquifer],” he said. “And we have to protect our rivers and streams that run through that area. We have to protect wildlife that is endangered, that flies and walks and breathes in that area. We have to protect the people of this state against the inappropriate use of eminent domain by a foreign corporation to come in and steal our land when we say ‘No! We don’t want you to have our land for your corporate greed.’ We have been saying that, and now we have a government that says, ‘Yes, you can go steal these Nebraskans’ land. You can steal it and make money.’”

“This is not a right decision.”

Helen Tanderup holds her head in her face after a disappointing decision from the Nebraska Public Service Commission on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Photo by Merika Andrade.

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