photo: American actress Daryl Hannah (C) sits in front of the White House in Washington, DC, August 30, 2011, during a protest against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Hannah was among dozens of protestors arrested in a demonstration against the oil pipeline which, if constructed, would run from Alberta’s oilsands in Canada to Texas.
Photograph by: SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Eager to avert a new threat to TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL oilsands pipeline, the Canadian government is turning its efforts from lobbying Washington decision makers to courting legislators in Nebraska who could further delay the $7 billion project even if it is approved by the State Department.
Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., will travel to Nebraska on Monday to meet privately with Governor Dave Heineman, who earlier this month declared his opposition to the controversial pipeline.
“It’s a courtesy visit to exchange views,” Doer said in an interview with Postmedia News.
“We’re going to go over how we perceive the merit of the pipeline. He’s not going to change my views, and I’m not going to change his views.”
Doer’s meeting with the Republican governor follows separate trips to Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital, in the past week by senior TransCanada executives who sought to allay Heineman’s concerns about safety of the massive pipeline.
It also comes as the State Department, which has promised a decision on Keystone XL by year’s end, holds two key public meetings this week in Nebraska to hear arguments for and against the project.
The pipeline would run through 411 kilometres of the Cornhusker State, crossing the eco-sensitive Sand Hills and the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which provides 80 per cent of Nebraska’s drinking water.
Heineman came out earlier this month against Keystone XL after months of pressure from state lawmakers — including both Democrats and Republicans — who argue Calgary-based TransCanada could not have chosen a worse route to build the pipeline.
Amid significant public opposition in Nebraska, some lawmakers are seeking to convene a special session of the state legislature to pass legislation giving them authority to change Keystone XL’s route.
For the Harper government, which promotes Canadian oil as a safe, secure source of energy for the U.S., the prospect of a new roadblock to Keystone XL at the state level is unsettling.
Doer says he will stress safety features of the pipeline and highlight the State Department’s recent conclusion Keystone XL poses no significant environmental threat.
“I think the merit of the proposal is what I am going to talk about,” said Doer.
“I’m going to talk about the issue of energy security. I’m going to talk about the issue of pipeline safety. I’m going to talk about the issue of jobs and the economic benefit.”
TransCanada estimates construction of Keystone XL will create 20,000 direct U.S. jobs, including 7,500 in Nebraska.
Heineman, so far, remains convinced the environmental threat outweighs the economic benefit. But he has also yet to outline what measures he’ll take if the State Department grants a presidential permit later allowing the pipeline’s construction.
In a private meeting last week with TransCanada executive Alex Pourbaix, the Nebraska governor sought an alternate route for Keystone XL. He proposed TransCanada build it through eastern portion of the state, on the path of an existing pipeline known as Keystone Phase One.
Pourbaix, president of TransCanada’s energy and pipeline’s division, stressed in an interview with Postmedia News that both the company and the State Department have concluded all other routes pose greater environmental threat.
“I reminded the governor that this route has been exhaustively analyzed,” Pourbaix said.
“It would be next to impossible to go back and suggest that any of those inferior routes” be taken.
Pourbaix said the planned route for Keystone XL is also the shortest one, thereby reducing “actual miles of pipe” and limiting impact on the environment during its construction and operation.
Heineman, speaking to reporters last week, conceded his request to TransCanada for a route change had got nowhere.
“I don’t think they are going to do that,” Heineman said.
The 2,700 kilometre pipeline would run from Hardisty, Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and could transport up to 900,000 barrels of oil per day.
Keystone XL cleared its final regulatory hurdle last month when the State Department, in a final environmental impact study, found there was “no significant impact” to natural resources on the U.S. portion of the pipeline route.
But the study also noted that individual states have the right to determine siting — or routing — of pipelines.
TransCanada complied with siting legislation in two other states — Montana and South Dakota. No such legislation yet exists in Nebraska.
TransCanada contends it would be unacceptable for Nebraska lawmakers to pass “after the fact” legislation to force changes to Keystone XL’s route if it is approved at the federal level.
“I think the likelihood of that occurring is very slim,” he said.
“What possible new information would be gained by having a state-level siting review?”
In its final environmental impact study, the State Department found that pipeline safety measures — including horizontal directional drilling under rivers and remote-controlled valve shut-offs — would limit threats to major rivers and the aquifer in Nebraska.
“In no spill incident scenario would the entire Northern High Plains Aquifer system be adversely affected,” the environmental study concluded.
It also found that five alternate routes through Nebraska would have “worse or similar” environmental impacts, and said TransCanada’s planned route for Keystone XL “is the preferred one.”
But a recent independent study by a University of Nebraska water resource engineer found a higher risk, estimating a worst-case spill in the Sand Hills would pollute almost 5 billion gallons of water.
While anti-pipeline sentiment has been relatively muted in other states along Keystone XL’s proposed route, an unlikely coalition of progressive activists and conservative landowners in Nebraska have turned it into a central political issue.
Some ranchers, under threat of legal action from TransCanada, have refused to grant the company easements to build the pipeline across their land.
Fans at a recent University of Nebraska football game booed when the stadium screen broadcast an ad linking Keystone XL to the state’s famous Cornhuskers team. The university subsequently ended a sponsorship deal it had with TransCanada.
But the pipeline has pockets of support.
Labour unions representing pipeline workers in Nebraska have been vocal proponents of the pipeline, and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce last week endorsed the project.
The conflicting viewpoints on the pipeline will be voiced at public meetings scheduled for Tuesday in Lincoln and Thursday in the town of Atkinson.
Pourbaix said he expects a “highly spirited discussion” but doesn’t believe “any new issues” about the pipeline will surface.
There will be no official participation by representatives of the Harper government. “The bottom line is the hearings are for the folks in the local areas,” Doer said.