LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A bill that would relaunch a state review of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline won final approval from Nebraska lawmakers Wednesday, although the project's strongest opponents said they will likely challenge it in court.
Lawmakers voted 44-5 to forward the measure to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who has said he supports the project.
The state review approved in a special legislative session last year was halted in January, when President Barack Obama denied a federal permit for the project after congressional Republican tried to force him to approve it quickly. Obama has since announced plans to expedite a permit for the southern half of the pipeline.
The full 1,700-mile, $7 billion pipeline would travel from Canada through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. TransCanada wants to build the 36-inch pipeline to carry oil from tar sands in Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Nebraska became a pivotal battleground for the project last year, pitting environmentalists and some landowners against unions and the oil industry. Heineman called a special session to address concerns over the pipeline's proposed path, and TransCanada executive eventually agreed to route the pipeline away from Nebraska's groundwater-rich Sandhills.
The bill approved by Nebraska lawmakers would allow the state review to continue, regardless of what happens with the federal government.
The measure authorizes the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to review possible routes through the state and hold at least one public hearing on its evaluation. Its findings would then be added to a federal environmental review, if the company reapplies for a project permit.
Environmentalists say the pipeline still threatens Nebraska's water and wildlife, and they dispute company claims that it will create tens of thousands of U.S. jobs and reduce the nation's dependence on oil from hostile foreign nations.
The review is expected to cost as much as $2 million. The state has spent roughly $153,000 since November but stopped the analysis after the permit was denied.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the bill "puts the power for the final route selection in Nebraska back in the hands of Nebraskans, regardless of what takes place at the federal level."
Howard said the company plans to consult soon with the Department of Environmental Quality to resume the review.
"Even many of those who expressed opposition to the pipeline in 2011 had issue with the route only, not the pipeline, the oil or the economic and energy security benefits it will bring to Nebraska and America," he said.
The bill also requires an evaluation of the social, environmental and economic impact of any proposed route. But Ken Winston of the Nebraska Sierra Club said it doesn't define any of those impacts or specify whether they should factor into the final decision.
Opponents also complained that lawmakers changed the bill at the last minute, without public hearings. They say the project should be reviewed by the state's Public Service Commission, an independently elected group that regulates utilities.
"The Nebraska Legislature has turned a deaf ear to Nebraska citizens and lawmakers one more time while it allowed a foreign corporation to circumvent the already approved and appropriate (review) process signed into law," said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.
Opponents have said the bill is unconstitutional special legislation, saying it can only be applied to TransCanada. Lawmakers said they have tried to work around those concerns.
The bill is LB1161