NE pipeline fight continues

Jan 25, 2013

Nebraska, a state that typically has little sway in presidential politics, will be a proving ground in the battle over the economic benefits of North American oil versus the threat of climate change.

Just a day after President Barack Obama cited the obligation to posterity and the threat of climate change as an issue that can’t be ignored, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, approved a new route for the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline that environmentalists argue is as destructive as any decision the Obama administration could make in fighting climate change.

Environmentalists were thrilled when Obama cited the threat of climate change in his inauguration speech. A failure to respond to climate change “would betray our children and future generations,” the president said.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” Obama said in his speech. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries; we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure—our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

The pipeline would have the potential to deliver about 830,000 barrels a day of oil from Canada’s tar sands, which has higher greenhouse-gas emissions than conventional crude oil. A study released last week by the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that tar-sands oil from the Keystone pipeline would increase U.S. carbon emissions by about 27.6 million metric tons annually, which is comparable to adding 6 million cars to the road. Yet, if the pipeline isn’t built through the U.S., TransCanada is likely to find an alternative route to export the oil, which would still be used elsewhere regardless of U.S. opposition.

Heineman approved a new route after the president denied a permit application by TransCanada a year ago due to environmental backlash over the route cutting through sections of Nebraska’s Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer, the largest aquifer in North America. Trans- Canada moved its pipeline route, which has since undergone a new environmental review by state officials.

Because the route crosses from Canada into the U.S., it must eventually be approved by the U.S. State Department before it can be built.

As part of the State Department’s mandate in approving such pipelines, the department must determine whether the pipeline, which will stretch from Alberta to Texas, is in the national interest. The State Department is working on its own environmental analysis of the new route, which is expected to be released soon.

In his letter, Heineman said the new pipeline route avoids the Sandhills, but would still cross the Ogallala Aquifer. If there were a spill, Heineman stated, the impact on aquifers would be localized and TransCanada would be responsible for clean-up. Further, the pipeline would generate $418 million in economic benefits and another $16.5 million in state use taxes, as well as $11 million to $13 million annually in local property taxes.

Environmentalists and Keystone opponents argue there is no way the president can declare a commitment to fighting climate change while approving the pipeline, regardless of the route.

Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, has spearheaded opposition to the pipeline in the state. She wasn’t surprised by Heineman’s approval of the route, but the president’s comments have boosted morale for those opposing Keystone.

“We feel good about our chances, and obviously we feel even better given what President Obama said yesterday,” Kleeb said. “If you really look at the science of this and the full aspects of climate change with this pipeline, as a president you can’t say those words and turn around and approve this pipeline. That’s crystal clear. Politically, I don’t see how he does it because the green groups would see that as a clear sign of betrayal.”

Speaking last month in Omaha, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, who heads the group, called Nebraska “ground zero” in the fight over climate change, specifically because the state is at the center of the battle over the Keystone pipeline.

Kleeb has built a coalition in Nebraska with farmers, ranchers and people in the communities along the route who aren’t concerned so much about the long-term climate effects as they are about possible water contamination if the pipeline were to bust. That remains the biggest fear among Nebraskans.

Backers of the pipeline point to a study released last week by Creighton University economist Ernie Goss who projected a positive $1.8 billion economic benefit to Nebraska over 17 years if the pipeline were approved and built.

“I don’t think the president’s comments in his inauguration address are a prediction on the outcome of the decision that now will be pending with the secretary of state,” said Jim Vokal, executive director of the Platte Institute, a business group based in Omaha.

U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R- NE, who has been a backer of the pipeline from early in the process, issued a statement praising the governor.

Terry did not make any links to climate impacts of the pipeline.

“I am pleased Gov. Heineman approved the Keystone XL pipeline based on the report which showed minimal environmental impact while having a substantial economic benefit to Nebraska.” Opponents are planning another rally in mid-February at the White House to push the agenda on the pipeline, which will include the planned arrests of some Nebraska landowners. — Chris Clayton, DTN