Those testifying before the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee expressed their worries during a nearly 12-hour day at the Capitol.
Supporters of Sen. Annette Dubas’ bill, LB1, expressed worry that TransCanada’s plans to build the Keystone XL pipeline through the Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer would damage the environment and pollute groundwater. Opponents of the bill expressed worry that it would delay or kill a project expected to create thousands of jobs and generate millions in economic activity in a country desperate for an economic boost.
About 150 people packed the hearing room with another 50 or so sitting in an overflow room when the committee began its hearing at 10am. Fewer than 30 sat scattered throughout the hearing room when Sen. Chris Langemeier, chairman of the committee, closed the hearing at 9:40pm. In between, the committee took only one break; an hour-and-a-half for lunch.
Dubas began the testimony, outlining her bill that would give the Public Service Commission authority to regulate oil pipelines in Nebraska, including the power to determine the route pipelines would take. Dubas told committee members her bill would both give Nebraska a voice in oil pipeline construction and provide due process for pipeline companies.
Dubas rejected suggestions the legislature was coming to the issue late and stated she simply wants Nebraska to have the same siting authority other states have. She claimed her bill was legally sound, a contention backed by two attorneys. Attorney Alan Peterson, representing the Sierra Club, told the committee Nebraska does have authority to regulate the routes of pipelines. University of Nebraska-Lincoln law professor Sandra Zellmer testified that such legislation falls within the traditional powers of states and that Nebraska isn’t precluded from conducting its own environmental assessment in addition to the one concluded for the federal Department of State.
That assessment was disputed by Attorney Robert Carpenter. Speaking on behalf of TransCanada, Carpenter called Dubas’ bill patently unconstitutional. Carpenter claimed the bill is “special” legislation, targeting only the Keystone XL pipeline, which is against the Nebraska Constitution. He further claimed it violated the Commerce Clause and would delay the $7 billion pipeline for at least eight months and, perhaps, for as much as three years.
Committee members peppered presenters with plenty of questions. And even members favorably predisposed toward the pipeline expressed concern about the complaints of landowners that TransCanada had prematurely threatened the use of eminent domain proceedings if they didn’t agree to the price offered for easements on their property.
While the hearing purported to take testimony on LB1, the actual testimony broke along lines familiar to anyone who has been following the pipeline saga. At times, the hearing echoed the arguments made before the State Department during two public hearings in Nebraska held in late September. Supporters often said little about the bill’s contents, instead expressing worries that an oil pipeline leak could ruin groundwater. Opponents of the bill, at times, expressed support to giving Nebraska a greater voice in the process during future pipeline discussions, but they claimed that Keystone XL had gone through a three-year permit process, the bills before the special session amounted to changing the rules of the game at the 11th hour. The State Department has said it wanted to reach a conclusion by the end of the year.