Government fights over pipeline, while Nebraskans speak out

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September 30th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Nebraskans gathered by the hundreds this week to speak out for and against the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, while traversing several states including Nebraska and its massive underground water reservoir, the Ogallala Aquifer.

At the same time, government officials are going back and forth, lobbying accusations as to whose responsibility it is to either allow or bar the pipeline from being built across the state. KVNO News’ Robyn Wisch checked in with Nebraska Watchdog’s Joe Jordan for an analysis of the pipeline fight.

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Gov. Heineman sounded like he was in campaign-mode this week, pushing back on suggestions from the Obama administration that Nebraska has the authority to re-route the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. (Photo courtesy State of Nebraska)

RW: The political battle over this controversial pipeline has gone from the legislature to the governor’s office to Washington. Gov. Heineman almost sounded like he was in campaign-mode this week, during a press conference with reporters. He was responding to comments from the Assistant Secretary for the Department of State, which appeared to say Nebraska has the authority to re-route the pipeline so that it does not cross the Ogallala aquifer. Here he is:

“This is the Obama administration again not taking responsibility for their actions, trying to shift the blame to someone else,” Heineman said. “Are they really suggesting Nebraska can pre-empt the President of the United States when he says it’s in the national interest? Are they suggesting that state law can circumvent federal law? Now, if we can, please send that to me. I’d be glad to take full responsibility and accountability for these issues where I can totally ignore what the federal government is doing.”

RW: So Joe, how has the fight played out between the governor’s office and the federal government?

JJ: Well, I think on one hand Gov. Heineman has been arguably pretty partisan. He’s taking on the Obama administration. He’s also singled out three Democrats in the Nebraska Legislature, asking where they are, what’s their position on the pipeline? I think in many respects, the Governor feels he’s sort of been the punching bag in Nebraska for this dispute. So I think it’s, in some ways, maybe it’s his way to fight back a bit.

RW: And the Governor’s also been fighting with the state legislature on the issue. Some senators have been very vocal, including State Sen. Ken Haar, who spoke forcefully at the hearing in Lincoln on Tuesday:

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, NE had strong words for the State Department Tuesday, saying the federal government and TransCanada doesn't "give a damn about Nebraska." (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

“I think Americans today assume that when you talk about national interest, it’s not coming from the top down, from Washington or Ottawa,” Haar said in his testimony. “But that’s upside down because the Keystone XL pipeline is planned to go through Nebraska. National interest starts with Nebraskans.”

“And with all due respect to this committee,” Haar continued. “I would say today the majority of Nebraskans feel that national interest is being defined by the federal government and TransCanada, and that you don’t give a damn about Nebraska.”

RW: Some combative words from Sen. Haar. He and some other senators are pushing the Governor to call a special session to deal with this issue, but the Governor says senators have already had an opportunity to do something about it during the regular session this year. And what would be any different if they called a special session on it, and furthermore, does the state even have the ability to do anything at all?

JJ: Well, your last question I think is the pre-eminent question. Can the state of Nebraska stop or do anything to over-regulate, in effect, the construction of this pipeline? Couple things: Gov. Heineman points to the state of Montana. Montana apparently has legislation that allows them to get their fingers in this pie, and play around with it a bit, decide where the pipeline’s going to be and where it’s going to be constructed. But Gov. Heineman makes the point that legislation may be on the books, but Montana hasn’t touched the pipeline. TransCanada’s path through Montana has not changed.

Possibly a bigger issue that the Governor has made… has to do with a 15-year-old dispute in Nebraska where Boyd County was going to be the site of a low-level nuclear waste repository. Opponents called it a waste dump. The State of Nebraska at that time, then-Governor Ben Nelson, stopped the site from being constructed. Those pushing the site sued the State of Nebraska. And in Gov. Dave Heineman’s first budget, the state had to shell out roughly $135 million in damages that went to that company that was going to construct that nuclear waste site. So Heineman (is) now saying if the state gets involved in regulating this thing to the point where it’s damaging something, we could be on the financial hook down the road.

RW: So Joe, we’re talking to you while you’re in Atkinson, Nebraska for the second public hearing. We’ve been hearing from Nebraskans all week, they’ve been passionate and vocal, but where do we go from here? Once the State Department has gathered all these comments, what’s next?

JJ: Well, with the federal government I think it’s safe to say you never know for sure. But the game plan that’s been laid out by the State Department is that following these hearings, and there’s more to come, Nebraska isn’t the only one, other states are having them, and there’s also going to be one final public hearing in Washington. When those are all done, maybe in the next 30 days, then the State Department takes all those comments… put them all together with the environmental impact statements, and hopefully, this will be resolved, for better or for worse, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, by the end of the year. The State Department has indicated that the Obama administration would make a decision on this pipeline by December 31st.

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