By Charlie Litton
Nebraska News Service
It took less than 45 minutes
for the 15th day of the Unicameral’s special legislative session to pass four bills and then Gov. Dave Heineman to sign them into law.
Following unopposed votes on the floor, members of the Natural Resources Committee–in a highly unusual move–hand delivered the bills to the governor who quickly signed them during a five-minute ceremony in his second-floor office.
“Our work is done,” Heineman said before signing the bills while flanked by the eight- member committee.
Before 10 a.m., on Nov. 22, Nebraska lawmakers gave the state route authority over future oil pipelines, changed eminent domain laws, and authorized the state to fund and perform its own supplemental environmental study for pipelines.
The signing ceremony was the culmination of a growing controversy in the state over the Keystone XL oil pipeline that reached a fevered pitch late last month. The growing concern centered on the state’s highly sensitive Sandhills and the Ogallala Aquifer, a major water source in the Midwest.
The 36-inch, high-pressure Keystone XL pipeline would have cut through the Sandhills as it delivered tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada, to American refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental concerns and outcry from the public led Heineman to call a special session with the purpose of creating legislation that deals with oil pipelines.
“At times leaders lead, but other times the people lead,” said Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas after Heinenman signed her bill. “And I think, especially on this issue, the people led.”
Dubas’s bill places within the Public Service Commission the authority over siting or routing of all future oil pipelines larger than six-inches in diameter. An amendment to the bill also restricts pipeline companies’ use of eminent domain law, which allows them to use privately owned land as long as it serves the public interest.
Eminent domain law is commonly used in public works projects such as roads or utility lines. Prior to the passage of Dubas’ bill, pipeline companies could pursue eminent domain proceedings at any time. Now, companies must first have permits before taking action.
Schuyler Sen. Chris Langemeier’s LB4 gives Nebraska the authority to study at its own expense the environmental impact of pipeline routes in the state. Once the study is complete, the governor will indicate which routes he or she approves for the project and submit that recommendation to federal authorities.
Because Keystone XL crosses an international border, the U.S. State Department was expected to issue the building permit to TransCanada by the end of the year. But in a flurry of late-breaking events, the State Department said it would put off its decision for another year while it reviewed environmental concerns. Less than a week later–and before any of the five related bills were debated on the floor–Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk announced a compromise with TransCanada officials in which they voluntarily agreed to move the route out of the Sandhills.
A key component of the compromise is that TransCanada is exempt from Dubas’ siting bill, which also removed any specter of opposition to its passage. TransCanada may be subject to Langemeier’s environmental impact study bill, however, provided the Department of Environmental Quality chooses to pursue it. Flood’s compromise was widely hailed from all corners in the pipeline debate.
Also passed was LB2, the necessary appropriations bill to finance the special session.