Nebraska's legislature is expected to pass a bill that would ease the way for construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The bill under consideration, LB 1161, would speed Nebraska's pipeline review process and give TransCanada greater powers of eminent domain along the pipeline's right-of-way.
Opponents of the project say the bill would undercut tougher legislation state lawmakers passed in November and allow TransCanada and other pipeline companies the option of choosing a murkier, potentially weaker state review process.
The earlier law gives the Public Service Commission (PSC) authority to review oil pipeline applications. The commission has already come up with proposed rules and regulations and has encouraged the public to weigh in. Ken Winston, a policy advocate for the Sierra Club, said the rules place "the burden of proof" on applicants to show that their route is in the public interest.
LB 1161 would allow pipeline companies to bypass the PSC and its rules. Instead, they would have the option of applying directly to the Department of Environmental Quality. Jane Kleeb, founder of the anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, fears the DEQ process will be less thorough because it hasn't set standards for how pipeline routes will be evaluated.
"The DEQ hasn't published what criteria they'll use to say whether a route is good or bad, whereas the PSC is going through a very public process, asking citizens to give input on what they should be using as criteria," Kleeb said.
DEQ spokesman Brian McManus declined to comment on his agency's criteria. Instead, he referred InsideClimate News to a March 19 letter written by DEQ director Michael Linder. It describes the agency's intent to prepare a draft supplemental environmental impact statement and to solicit public input for the new Keystone XL route. But McManus said he couldn't say if DEQ still plans to follow that process.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the DEQ is better equipped to handle the reroute because the PSC is "not set up at this time to begin a review ... [they're] probably at least a year away from accepting a pipeline application."
Laura Demman, director of the PSC's Natural Gas and Pipelines division, said the agency is collecting comments on the proposed rules and will hold a public hearing on May 21. She said an additional comment period may be necessary if substantial changes are made to the rules. Bold Nebraska, individual citizens and an industry group called the Association of Oil Pipelines are among those who have already submitted comments. TransCanada has not.