What to expect as Nebraska PSC starts hearings on Keystone XL pipeline

LINCOLN — After weeks of public meetings and debate about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the time has come to decide whether the long-delayed project will get a green light from Nebraska.

A weeklong marathon of court-like hearings over the controversial project will begin Monday at 9 a.m. at Lincoln’s Cornhusker Marriott Hotel.

That comes a day after pipeline opponents plan a rally in Lincoln and pipeline construction workers gather for a barbecue in Omaha.

The 275-mile route submitted by TransCanada is the same pathway that was approved by a different state agency, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, back in 2013.

But observers say that despite that, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the five Nebraska Public Service Commission officials — elected by district from across Nebraska — will OK the XL this time.

So expect some drama next week, along with plenty of legal objections from lawyers representing landowners and groups opposed to the pipeline.

And expect some uncertainty. This is the first time the low-profile commission, which typically rules on issues concerning telephone and cellphone service, has ever sat in judgment over an oil pipeline.

It will, without a doubt, be the highest-profile action the PSC has taken, drawing national attention.

Rulings earlier this week by a retired judge from Lincoln who will be the hearing officer severely restricted what issues can be presented. Those rulings may serve to shorten the hearings, which are scheduled to extend as late as 9 p.m. each day.

No testimony will be allowed, Judge Karen Flowers ruled, on topics such as pipeline leaks, the necessity for the pipeline and how landowners have been treated by TransCanada — because the state pipeline siting law doesn’t allow consideration of those topics.

Flowers did allow discussion about the impact on property values and soil disturbance in laying the 36-inch pipeline, which would be buried 4 feet deep to allow farming and grazing to resume above it.

But Omaha attorney Dave Domina, who is representing a group of landowners opposed to the pipeline, said he is hoping that members of the PSC will overrule the judge’s decisions and allow broader testimony.

“We hope the individual commissioners recognize the breadth and gravity of their responsibility,” Domina said. “They are not supposed to do anything less with this massive process than they’d do for any other application.”

A TransCanada spokesman, however, said that federal regulators have already reviewed the safety of the pipeline — and approved it — and the company has agreed to 59 additional safety measures.

Matthew John of the pipeline company said the route selected is the “safest and most environmentally responsible” and that pipelines are the safest way to transport oil.

Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska said that she expects about 200 people at Sunday’s protest march in Lincoln, and her organization has warned other anti-pipeline groups to behave.

Civil disobedience and the wearing of masks won’t be part of her group’s game plan on Sunday, Kleeb said, though that might change if the pipeline is approved.

“If we’ll lose, we will use all legal and civil disobedience options we have,” she said. “Or we’ll wait for the election of a president who cares about property rights and the climate.”

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