Nebraska to become battleground over fate of Keystone XL pipeline project

More than 100 landowners and environmental activists are expected to descend on the town of York, Nebraska, on Wednesday to voice opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline as the state holds its first public meeting on the proposed construction since the Trump administration revived it.

Nebraska’s public service commission, responsible for the state’s regulation of infrastructure, has yet to approve a route for the Keystone XL, making it the last major hurdle in the pipeline’s potential construction.

Activists leading the fight against the pipeline told the Guardian that delegates to the meeting plan to raise a number of economic, environmental and property rights concerns about the project, and will target Trump’s claims that the pipeline will use American steel and lead to thousands of jobs.

“We have the evidence on our side that this pipeline does not meet the public interest of Nebraska,” said Jane Kleeb, president of the Bold Alliance, and one of the Keystone XL’s leading opponents.

Before Wednesday’s meeting in York, the Guardian has launched a three-part series that follows the proposed pathway of the Keystone XL through the three states – Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska – it is set to cross. The series features dozens of interviews with local officials, Native American leaders and activists, as well as landowners and small business owners who will be affected by the potential construction.

The route has the necessary permits in Montana and South Dakota, where activists are preparing to oppose the pipeline if construction goes ahead. The route is set to cross underneath dozens of rivers and streams, and under one of the world’s largest groundwater sources, the Ogallala aquifer, prompting serious concerns about the consequences of a major leak.

At the Fort Peck Indian reservation in north-east Montana, a new generation of activists who took part in the protests last year against the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation worry that a leak on the proposed route across the Missouri river could contaminate the reserve’s water intake plant, about 40 miles downstream.

At the Cheyenne River reservation in South Dakota, where protest camps against the pipeline have already begun to populate, other activists expressed similar concerns about the potential of a leak underneath the Cheyenne river, which feeds the reservation’s water treatment plant. Activists also oppose the state’s newly passed senate bill 176, which curbs the right to assemble on public land in South Dakota and was passed, opponents say, in support of the Trump administration’s revival of the Keystone project.

In an interview with the Guardian, South Dakota’s Republican secretary for tribal relations, Steve Emery, acknowledged that the state’s tribes had little to gain from the project. “I certainly don’t think it [the Keystone XL pipeline] is going to make any great economic impact on South Dakota or on the native tribes that share our borders,” said Emery, who was appointed by Governor Dennis Daugaard, a staunch Keystone supporter.

The comments fly against much of the Republican support for the project, which has long touted job creation, energy independence and local tax revenue as a justification.

The pipeline would carry a daily load of 830,000 barrels of crude oil from Alberta in Canada, along a 1,204-mile route to Steele City, Nebraska, where it will meet the existing Keystone pipeline and transport crude tar sands oil, which is dirtier and more energy-intensive to extract than other oil, down to refineries on the Gulf coast.

It is likely that a significant amount of the refined product is destined for export, and the state department estimates that while the project will result in tens of thousands of temporary jobs, just 50 permanent positions will remain after construction. The pipeline’s operating company, TransCanada, is a private Canadian infrastructure giant based in Alberta.

TransCanada says the pipeline will bring jobs, and that the route is safe and will be protected by state-of-the-art leak detection technology. TransCanada insists it has consulted all parties along the route, including Native American tribal leaders.

The Obama administration blocked the project in 2015, after the state department found the construction would undermine US leadership in the fight against global warming. Many landowners along the proposed route, including registered Republicans, expressed deep frustration at the Trump administration’s revival of the project.

In Montana and South Dakota, advocates estimate that dozens of landowners were essentially forced to sign easements with TransCanada under the threat of eminent domain, the right by which private land is seized for public use.

John Harter, a cattle rancher in south-east South Dakota, warned he would remove representatives from TransCanada “if necessary with force”, claiming his settlement with the company was now void.

TransCanada said it had been “working with Mr Harter for several years and we are committed to working with him in the future”.

The firm also said it has 100% of easements with landowners in Montana and South Dakota and 91% in Nebraska.

Art Tanderup, a Nebraska corn farmer and one of the remaining 90 landowners in the state yet to have signed an easement with TransCanada, said he and his wife planned to lay down their bodies to prevent the company from digging up their land. “They will have to bulldoze me over before they can come on my property,” Tanderup said.

The Nebraska public service commission, which is administered by five elected commissioners, will hold public hearings over a week in early August, with a decision on the route proposal expected later in the year.

A set of meeting minutes seen by the Guardian in the city of Baker, Montana, show that TransCanada representatives told local officials in February that they could commence construction of pipeline pumping stations in 2018, with a view to building the pipeline itself between 2019 and 2020.


Oliver Laughland and Laurence Mathieu-Léger

The GuardianTramp

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