Local elected officials along the pipeline’s route are caught in the midst of a battle between landowners and a foreign oil corporation.
As the national debate surrounding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline makes headlines in large cities throughout the country, local elected officials along the pipeline’s route are caught in the midst of a battle between landowners and a large foreign oil corporation.
“They have to take into consideration the safety of the citizens, but also the tax base of their counties,” Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, told Mint Press News.
Technically speaking, county boards do not have the authority to ban the pipeline from crossing through county land.
And while those living along the pipeline’s route know this, they also know their commissioners hold the authority to stand up against TransCanada in a way that illustrates their frustration with a foreign company that wants to come in and access a portion of their land forever.
“They don’t have the legal authority to ban a pipeline, but they certainly do not have to turn over their county on a silver platter to TransCanada,” Bold Nebraska Director Jane Kleeb told the Omaha World Herald.
Caught in the middle
Dix said his organization has met with TransCanada officials, just as it does with any other company that requires county approval before conducting business in the state.
While not a cheerleader for the pipeline, he advises county commissioners to carefully weigh the consequences of any and all decisions — and to keep the emotional piece of the puzzle out of the equation.
That could be difficult for commissioners, who have not only been visited by TransCanada’s officials with promises of jobs and a boost to the county’s coffers, but also by friends and neighbors — those who are reeling at the thought of their land being used to transport a product that could come back to haunt them.
Of main concern is the propensity for oil spills, which could be devastating to farmland, ranchland and the Ogallala aquifer — a source of drinking water for people in eight states and a key resource for farmers who need to irrigate their crops.
“What we have in York County, it is some of the best farmland, definitely in the state of Nebraska, and I actually think it’s the best farmland in the world,” Abbi Harrington-Kleinschmidt, who owns 2,000 acres of farmland in the eastern Nebraska county, told Mint Press News. “It’s flat, it has good soil and with the aquifer we are able to irrigate.”
At a hearing this month in York County, commissioners watched that scenario play out in front of their eyes. As resident after resident approached the podium, voicing concerns about a pipeline transporting 830,000 gallons of oil a day under their feet, commissioners then turned to TransCanada representatives for their side of the story.
Because of the threat of spills, residents in York County are demanding zoning regulations for oil pipelines, as they currently do not exist.
Harrington-Kleinschmidt points not only to the lack of zoning regulations for oil pipelines, but the existing zoning regulations for the county’s handful of wind turbines.
Her question is, if there are zoning regulations for the wind industry, why aren’t there for the oil industry? And she’s not alone in her request — residents in 12 Nebraska counties along the pipeline route are asking their county representatives the same thing.
While the zoning requirements aren’t specifically determined at this point, residents are asking, in general, for regulations requiring TransCanada keep the pipeline a certain distance from homes and structures, and to mandate the company pay to train local first responders who would be on hand for oil spills.
TransCanada representatives claim this is all unnecessary. At a York County Board meeting, Jeff Rauh, a representative of the company, said the county board should instead look at state and federal environmental reviews, which he claims indicate any spills from the pipeline would not cause widespread contamination.
“These studies demonstrate that allegations about risks to Nebraska’s outstanding water resources and the aquifer in particular have been overstated,” he told the board, according to the Omaha World Herald.
Yet not everyone is looking at the State Department’s draft environmental impact review as one worth merit. The Environmental Protection Agency said in April that the statement had insufficient information and failed to differentiate the impact tar sand oil spills would have on surrounding areas.
“We have learned from the 2010 Enbridge spill of oil sands crude in Michigan that spills of diluted bitumen may require different response actions or equipment from response actions for conventional oil spills,” the EPA stated. “These spills can also have different impacts than spills of conventional oil. We recommend that these differences be more fully addressed in the final EIS (environmental impact study), especially as they relate to the fate and transport of the oil and the remediation that will be required.”
Standing on symbolism
In addition to zoning regulations, residents along Nebraska’s pipeline route are asking their commissioners to pass resolutions declaring opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Similar resolutions have been passed in Nebraska — Holt County adopted one in April. According to Bold Nebraska, the county adopted the resolution after more than 70 farmers and ranchers attended a county zoning board meeting, demanding their officials work for them — not TransCanada.
Three TransCanada officials attended that meeting and presented the board with the monetary argument — promising $3 million in property taxes generated from the pipeline.
“Whatever is decided in Washington, D.C., will happen, but our citizens have concerns and we are addressing it,” Holt County Supervisor Chairman Bill Tielke told the Norfolk Daily News.
York County commissioners rejected the proposed resolution, asking instead for residents to create another draft that would not leave them in a legal blind if — and when — the pipeline is constructed. Another meeting will be held July 23, at which point commissioners will re-examine the proposal.
York and Holt counties are not unique in their consideration of the resolution. Dix said it’s been presented to counties throughout the pipeline route. Because it’s largely symbolic, he advises commissioners to approach with caution, as it could lead to legal headaches.
“If you don’t have the authority, then it doesn’t make any sense to be doing something you don’t have authority to do, unless you want to say, ‘We don’t mind going to court and facing litigation,’” Dix said.
There’s also the issue of whether the county board should be spending time and resources passing resolutions that are more symbolic than anything else.
“I don’t know how much the symbolic vote means at the end of the day — the thing we ask our county boards to do is gather as many facts as you can,” Dix said. “There’s no urgency, there’s no definitive timeline yet for this and whatever you do make sure that if you pass something it doesn’t impact something else that’s already in existence or might be coming.”
President Barack Obama has the final say in whether the 1,700-mile pipeline will be built, but all signs point to its passage. In a climate change address to the nation, he indicated the pipeline will be shot down only if it’s proven to be a net contributor to climate change. His comments came after an April State Department report deemed the Keystone XL pipeline would have no impact on global warming, using the rationale that extraction of Alberta tar sands — the source of carbon emissions — would continue with or without U.S. involvement.
Meanwhile, the Motiva oil refinery, co-owned by Saudi Aramco and Royal Dutch Shell and located in Texas near the Gulf of Mexico, recently underwent a $10 billion makeover and expansion. According to a 2011 Bizmology report, the expansion was designed to cater to Canada’s tar sand oil industry — and the only way the oil will make its way down is through Keystone.
Yet for those living on the front lines, the fight isn’t over until it’s over — and even then, they’re not willing to give up their land without putting up a legal fight and taking it to the very end.
“We keep fighting the good fight, we will not give up,” Harrington-Kleinschmidt said. “We will not sign an easement with them and give them eminent domain without a fight.”