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Oil and Water in Nebraska: In Congress, Cornhuskers Take Wait-and-See Approach to Pipeline

Third in a series exploring the election-season dynamics of a plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska

By Elizabeth McGowan

Oct 1, 2010

Editor's Note: In late September, SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Nebraska to find out more about the Keystone XL pipeline that TransCanada plans to build to carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. This is the third in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

LINCOLN, Neb.—Thus far, no elected official in Nebraska has come out for or against TransCanada’s that will stretch close to of the Cornhusker State.

Perhaps wary of backlash from labor unions or oil companies, they seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. 

This attitude vexes the advocacy coalition Bold Nebraska and other environmental organizations that want the pipeline nixed or relocated. It also perplexes many of the 470 landowners who would receive lump sum payments from TransCanada if they agree to allow the pipeline to cross their property.

If Gov. Dave Heineman and other state officials keep claiming it’s a federal issue, they are asking, then why is Nebraska so quiet on the congressional front? 

Both of the state’s U.S. senators—neither up for re-election this year—are involved in the pipeline issue to some degree. They haven’t voiced opposition but nor have they followed the lead of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, who recently called on the U.S. State Department to expedite approval of the pipeline permit.

Democrat Ben Nelson met with a State Department undersecretary in early July, asking that all economic and environmental impacts be considered, along with the viewpoints of all Nebraskans. On Aug. 11, Mike Johanns sent a sharply worded letter to TransCanada chief executive Russell Girling after the company threatened Nebraska landowners with condemnation proceedings if they didn’t move quickly to sign voluntary easement agreements.

However, the state’s three House representatives have been considerably less aggressive.

Little Traction in Congressional Races

If built, Keystone XL would be confined to Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Adrian Smith is vying for a third term. It’s an enormous rural swath covering all but an eastern sliver of the state that is home to both Lincoln and Omaha, the state's population centers.

Omaha is also home to a TransCanada office. (The company is based in Calgary, Alberta.) Half of the oil company’s roughly 4,300 employees work in U.S. cities, said company spokesman Terry Cunha.

Environmentalists are especially disappointed that Smith and his fellow Republican Rep. Lee Terry, whose tiny district encompasses greater Omaha, haven’t been more vocal about their position on the pipeline.

Smith won his last election with 77 percent of the vote and serves on the House Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Science and Technology committees.

Right now, Smith’s Nov. 2 opponents—Democrat Rebekah Davis and conservative independent Dan Hill—don’t seem to be gaining on him. However, some politically savvy Nebraskans think a three-way race this time around could lead to a Nov. 2 surprise for Smith.

Smith spokesman Charles Isom told SolveClimate News that Smith has been tracking the issue closely.

“He is committed to responsibly advancing our nation’s energy agenda and encouraging investment in Nebraska, however he remains concerned about the protection of our natural resources and the rights of private property owners,” Isom wrote in an e-mail.

TransCanada’s threat to use eminent domain to gain access to private land—before the State Department has even issued a presidential permit for Keystone XL—has raised the hackles of property owners and anti-pipeline activists.

Nebraska Cornhuskers Tickets

My best and beloved team is Nebraska Cornhuskers. I’m following their games, wherever they appear. When I can, I attend games, and when I’m unable to watch them in direct, I don’t take off my eyes of TV. I’m a crazy fan! You can’t imagine.

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