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Oklahoma Family Fights Keystone Pipeline And Wins

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Opponents of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline won a small and perhaps only symbolic victory this week when TransCanada abandoned an eminent domain claim on the property of an Oklahoma family.

The Calgary-based company is planning a $7 billion pipeline that would carry oil some 1,700 miles from Alberta's tar sands through six U.S. states to the Texas Gulf Coast. It had planned to run part of that pipeline across the southwest corner of a 180-acre slice of land belonging to 69-year-old Sue Kelso and her siblings, who were profiled in The Huffington Post last month.

The family declined TransCanada's offers of compensation for the use of their land, and eventually refused to negotiate, at which point the company filed a legal claim for the right to run the pipeline through the property anyway.

But Harlan Hentges, the attorney representing Kelso and her family, said he received notice late Thursday that TransCanada had quietly abandoned that claim in a court filing submitted on Tuesday.

"They apparently decided to run the pipeline around the property," Hentges said, "through land belonging to someone willing to make a deal."

In an e-mail message, TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said route adjustments are a common part of the negotiation process. "Occasionally we make the decision to adjust the route in such a way that it involves other landowners," he said. The decision to change the route involving the property belonging to Kelso and her siblings was such a situation.

"In short, we found a better route option with a nearby landowner," Cunha said.

The decision comes as controversy over the pipeline approaches a fever pitch. Hundreds of protesters opposing the pipeline have been arrested outside the White House amid acts of civil disobedience. They have been calling on President Obama to scuttle plans for the pipeline, which, among other things, would invigorate the development of vast oil sands deposits in northwestern Canada.

These so-called tar sands -- a gooey mixture of sand, clay, and oil -- require extensive processing, including large amounts of water and energy, to produce marketable hydrocarbons. Full-scale exploitation of the tar sands would add copious amounts of new greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and some climate experts have suggested that doing so would essentially condemn the planet to runaway global warming.

Other opponents have expressed concern about potential leaks in such a pipeline, and they have pointed to earlier phases of TransCanada's Keystone project, which has experienced a dozen leaks in a year of operation, as reason to reconsider the Canada-to-Gulf extension.

Supporters of the pipeline, meanwhile -- including many Republicans in Congress -- say the pipeline would help ease the nation's reliance on less friendly sources of foreign oil. During its construction, they say, the pipeline would also create much-needed jobs in areas struggling to shake off the lingering effects of a broad economic slump.

House Republicans passed a bill at the end of last month that would force the Obama administration to render a decision on the pipeline by Nov. 1 of this year, though the bill had virtually no chance of getting through the Senate.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, its fate rests largely with the U.S. State Department under Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. The department is expected to release its final environmental assessment of the project on Friday.

The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported Thursday that the assessment would find the project to have "limited adverse environmental impacts."

Clinton has previously stated that she was inclined to approve the pipeline.

TransCanada has cut deals with landowners up and down the pipeline's proposed route, offering compensation at various rates for the right to run and operate the pipeline through their properties. In most cases, according to Cunha, the company has reached deals with landowners without incident.

Where deals can't be struck, the company has sometimes invoked eminent domain, a power that can be delegated by state authorities to public and private companies -- typically for the running of telephone and power lines, water, oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure deemed to be in the "public good."

A controversial 2005 Supreme Court decision also extended the notion of "public good" to projects involving simple economic development.

Kelso and her family initially negotiated with TransCanada, but eventually decided they were opposed to the pipeline in general and contested the company's right to invoke eminent domain.

"Let's face it, our government is crooked," Kelso told The Huffington Post last month, expressing anger that the pipeline was being supported by state and federal legislators. Kelso said she feared the pipeline could leak and contaminate aquifers across the American heartland.

"Politicians are crooked and I don't trust any of them. They don't care if this stuff is dangerous -- until they don't have any clean drinking water. And then they'll wish they hadn't pushed for that pipeline."

Hentges, Kelso's lawyer, said late Thursday that if nothing else, TransCanada's decision to move the pipeline, however slightly, sends a message to landowners in other states.

"You can fight this," he said.

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