Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline questioned its proposed pathway through Nebraska on Tuesday in hopes that state regulators will reject or reroute it, a decision that would create more delays for the 9-year-old project.
But pipeline builder TransCanada defended its proposal to the Nebraska Public Service Commission, arguing that the company's "preferred route" makes the most sense and causes the least amount of disruption.
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The proposed pipeline faced another day of scrutiny in a hearing before the Nebraska Public Service Commission, whose five members must decide whether the Keystone XL serves the public interest. Approving the project would allow TransCanada to gain access to holdout landowners' property using Nebraska's eminent domain laws.
The 1,179-mile crude oil pipeline has faced relentless criticism from environmental groups, Native American tribes and a well-organized minority of Nebraska landowners who don't want the project cutting through their property. Business groups and some unions support the Keystone XL, saying it will provide jobs and property tax revenue for local governments.
Opponents argue that, if it wins approval, the Keystone XL should run along the same path as the original Keystone pipeline, a line through eastern Nebraska that was completed with little opposition in 2010. TransCanada's preferred route would carry crude oil roughly 275 miles through Nebraska, whereas the original Keystone route only stretches 210 miles, said Brian Jorde, an attorney for the landowners.
Company officials have said their preferred route is the most direct way to transport oil from Alberta, Canada, to an existing pipeline in Steele City, Nebraska. Rerouting the pipeline would add millions of dollars to the project's $8 billion price tag.
Because it would travel along a nearly straight path, company officials said their preferred route would affect the least amount of land. TransCanada considered other routes, including one that would have run along Interstate 90 in South Dakota, but rejected them because they were longer, said Meera Kothari, a company engineer.
The most direct path "lends itself to a diagonal route through Alberta, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska," Kothari said.
The company has also argued that the route through neighboring South Dakota is already set, thus requiring it to cross the border at a point near Mills, Nebraska.
The arguments didn't sit well with Art Tanderup, a farmer who grows corn, soybeans and rye on land the pipeline would traverse near the town of Neligh, in northern Nebraska.
Tanderup said he was worried construction would irreparably disrupt the worms, microorganisms and air pockets he has cultivated in his soil, despite the company's promises to restore the land to its original state.
"Basically, it's going to ruin 13 years of no-till farming," he said.
On Tuesday, a leading advocate for Nebraska landowners who oppose the pipeline argued that South Dakota's route wasn't set in stone.
"We've been here for two days of hearings in which we've heard witness after witness say that we have to approve a route with a fixed starting point because the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission approved it, but all the South Dakota Public Utilities commission did was to grant a construction permit," said Dave Domina, an Omaha attorney.
The Nebraska Public Service Commission must decide by Nov. 23 whether to approve or reject the project, based on evidence presented at hearings that could continue through Friday. The elected commission is comprised of four Republicans and one Democrat.
Outside the hearing, about 40 Native American tribe members and supporters gathered to protest the project. The tribes voiced concerns about the pipeline contaminating the state's groundwater.
"We just don't think there's a need for this," said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.
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