Nebraska landowners along proposed oil pipeline route look forward to decision on project

While a proposed oil pipeline linking Canadian producers to the U.S. Gulf Coast is still in limbo, Nebraska landowners who signed deals with the company that would build it are free to spend what they received — no matter what happens.

Roughly 400 of the 515 Nebraska landowners along the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline have signed easement agreements with TransCanada, and can keep the money regardless of whether the project first proposed in 2008 ever comes to pass.

"I think it should have been built a long time ago," said Ronald Weber, who agreed to let the pipeline cross his land in northeast Nebraska. "I kind of think it's going to take a change in presidency to get this thing built."

Weber said he thought TransCanada treated him well and paid him a fair price — roughly equal to the appraised value of the land that would be affected by the pipeline.

A measure passed the U.S. House but fell short this week of the votes it needed in the Senate. Republican leaders in Congress have promised to hold another vote in January when the GOP takes control of the Senate.

The pipeline has attracted opposition from environmentalists and some landowners because of concerns that it could contaminate underground and surface water supplies, increase air pollution around refineries and harm wildlife. Many supporters say those fears are exaggerated, and that the pipeline would create jobs and ease American dependence on Middle East oil.

Randy Thompson, one of the Nebraska landowners who sued to challenge the process the state used to approve TransCanada's route, said he's not sure this week's vote has major implications for the project overall. But he hopes it will prompt more people to learn about the pipeline.

"I think ultimately it's going to boil down to the president making a decision, and I feel confident he will veto it," Thompson said.

The original Keystone XL project was split into two pieces, and the southern section between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast is already operating. That segment didn't need presidential approval because it doesn't cross an international border.

The pipeline segment that still needs President Barack Obama's approval would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. TransCanada also has proposed connecting it to the Bakken oil field in Montana and North Dakota.

Terri Funk said she and most of the farmers and ranchers she knows in northeast Nebraska's Antelope County support the pipeline.

"Everybody is tired of all the delays. It should have been built a long time ago," Funk said.

But the project could be further delayed by Thompson's lawsuit. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks on whether the Nebraska Public Service Commission must review the pipeline before it can cross the state. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman approved the route in 2013 without the panel's involvement.

One thing opponents and supporters agree on is that after years of debating the project's merits, it would be nice to have a decision.

Farmer Art Tandurup said fighting the pipeline occupies a lot of his time. After hosting a concert by Willie Nelson and Neil Young on his land near Neligh earlier this year, Tandurup returned to Washington, D.C., this week to lobby lawmakers.

"I've been putting things on hold for the last couple years because this work needs to be done," said Tandurup, who says he is trying to protect farmland that has been in his wife's family for generations for his grandchildren.