LINCOLN - Over the objection of a trio of lawmakers, the Nebraska Legislature advanced an amended bill Thursday that would resume a state review of a Keystone XL pipeline route that avoids the groundwater-rich Sand Hills.
Finding an acceptable detour has been a major sticking point in the controversial and stalled $1.7 billion pipeline, which is proposed to carry crude oil from Canada's tar sands region to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
Final passage of Legislative Bill 1161 is expected next week, during the final days of the Legislature's 60-day session.
That would clear the way for TransCanada Inc. to submit a suggested corridor for a 100-mile detour that avoids the groundwater-rich Sand Hills, which are dotted by marshes and wet hay meadows.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said he could not predict when that corridor proposal would be submitted, but he was glad the legislation had advanced to final-round consideration.
"We'll have to wait for a little bit longer to see what impacts these legislative amendments have on our ability to move forward," Howard said.
Approval of the detour route could come by the end of the year.
Howard said TransCanada plans to submit a new request for a federal pipeline permit within the next "couple of months."
In January, the Obama administration rejected a federal permit, citing a congressionally imposed shorter deadline for a decision and the lack of agreement on a route in Nebraska that bypasses the Sand Hills.
Under the latest version of LB 1161, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and its contractor, HDR of Omaha, would review the pipeline route, and the governor would decide whether it is acceptable.
If the plan was rejected, a second review could be conducted by the Nebraska Public Service Commission.
In a major amendment, TransCanada would now pay for the estimated $2 million review.
As part of a compromise reached during a special session in November to change the pipeline route, state lawmakers agreed to cover that expense to remove any question about TransCanada's influence over the environmental review.
Howard said that it was never TransCanada's idea for Nebraska to pay and that it has no objection now to funding the review.
Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler said several lawmakers had objected to the state picking up the cost. Since Nebraska has already selected a contractor to conduct the review, that should remove major questions about TransCanada's influence over the process.
Three senators objected to the latest change in the bill, saying citizens and lawmakers hadn't had time to read and digest three amendments offered on the 57th day of the 60-day session.
Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said because LB 1161 had undergone "an extreme makeover," it should be returned to committee for a public hearing - a move that would likely kill the bill for the session.
Haar said Nebraska doesn't need to give any special favors to TransCanada just because it lost the political game in Washington.
"I still believe TransCanada was a victim of its own machinations. We did our part in November," he said, referring to the special session.
Haar joined Sens. Annette Dubas of Fullerton and Danielle Conrad of Lincoln in loudly stating "no" during the voice vote to advance the bill to final-round consideration.
Representatives of two environmental groups, Sierra Club of Nebraska and BOLD Nebraska, said a lawsuit blocking the bill is still possible, even though an amendment adopted Thursday was designed to head off that possibility.
Ken Winston of the Sierra Club said the amended bill did provide some additional public input, but his organization was given no voice in crafting the amendments offered Thursday.
Jane Kleeb of BOLD Nebraska said it was "outrageous" how the public has been treated on the pipeline. Amendments were not released to the public until about noon, then they were pulled and a new one was drafted.
Citizens, she said, had no chance to digest and comment on the amendments.
"That is not how you make laws. It's not a respectable and responsible way," Kleeb said. "I don't know what they're doing over there, other than doing TransCanada's bidding."
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Copyright 2012 Omaha World-Herald Co. All Rights Reserved.
(Originally published April 6, 2012, in the Omaha World-Herald.)