Opponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline are preparing for a new series of public meetings in May sponsored by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
The four hearings will take place in O'Neill, Neligh, Albion and Central City - all along the proposed new corridor for the pipeline that steers away Nebraska's Sandhills. Opponents argue the new corridor still crosses through fragile, sandy soil that they consider part of the Sandhills.
Calgary-based pipeline developer TransCanada submitted a series of proposed routes - including a preferred alternative - to Nebraska environmental officials last month. The state has become a focus of concern for the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, because the initial route cross the Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer, a vast groundwater supply that lies beneath much of Nebraska and provides drinking water to eight states.
President Barack Obama blocked the pipeline in January, citing uncertainty over the Nebraska route and a deadline imposed by Congress that required a quick decision before a review could be completed. Obama has indicated he could later support the pipeline, and Nebraska lawmakers and Gov. Dave Heineman gave the go-ahead this month for the state to resume its review, regardless of what happens with the federal environmental review.
Pipeline opponents have accused TransCanada of pressuring landowners into signing easements to their land, an allegation the company denies. The group Bold Nebraska has scheduled a May 3 meeting in Neligh, in advance of the state agency meetings, to urge landowners to not talk to the company.
On its website, the group urges landowners not to accept phone calls from TransCanada, to keep all written correspondence the company sends and to record any in-person conversations. The group's director, Jane Kleeb, said the company's "land agents" are already approaching landowners within the proposed corridor, even though the department hasn't completed its evaluation.
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmer's Union, said his group has maintained a good relationship with the Department of Environmental Quality. But Hansen said he and other pipeline opponents plan to keep close watch on the state sessions for any attempts to pressure landowners.
"We want to see what's going on. We want to make sure what's going on is appropriate," Hansen said. "While we've conflicts with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality in the past, but there are a lot of good folks working for that agency."
The meetings will take place in O'Neill on May 9, Neligh on May 10, Albion on May 16 and Central City on May 17.
Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality Director Mike Linder said the meetings are designed to give landowners and others a chance to discuss the pipeline review process. The meetings will have an open-house format, offering personal access to department staff and to TransCanada officials.
The department then plans to give feedback to TransCanada, which would conduct a more in-depth review before finalizing a proposed route. The environmental agency and its contractor, Omaha-based HDR Engineering, would evaluate the route and publish a draft report on its website.
The agency would then schedule a public hearing for comments, and submit its final draft report to the governor. Heineman will decide whether he approves of the route, and forward his decision to federal agencies reviewing the project.
Although he blocked the proposed pipeline, Obama has said he will direct federal agencies to fast-track a segment from Oklahoma to Texas. The 485-mile line from Cushing, Okla., to refineries on Texas' Gulf coast would remove a bottleneck in the country's oil transportation system, as rising oil production has outgrown pipelines' capacity to deliver oil to refineries.