State lawmakers offer bill aimed at pipeline regulation

2011-10-03T16:30:00Z 2011-10-17T03:18:24Z State lawmakers offer bill aimed at pipeline regulationBy ART HOVEY / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
October 03, 2011 4:30 pm  • 

State Sen. Annette Dubas and her closest lawmaker allies want the Nebraska Legislature to do something its members have never done: Call themselves into special session.

In the past, governors have called for special session to deal with urgent matter that cannot wait until the regular session.

Dubas made the case for urgency Monday and for meeting to establish siting authority over oil pipelines. She wants to use that authority to move the proposed Keystone XL pipeline out of the Nebraska Sandhills.

The Fullerton senator circulated a 22-page draft of a bill that could result in pipeline builder TransCanada moving the Nebraska portion of the project away from porous Sandhills soil and the Ogallala Aquifer.

At the same time, she and a core group that includes Ken Haar of Malcolm and Bill Avery and Tony Fulton of Lincoln are looking at Friday as a self-imposed deadline for getting the necessary 33 of 49 state senators to agree to take up that bill in a special session.

"We just don't have time to be messing around with this," Dubas said.

The initial challenge is to get 10 senators on board.

That would result in a written notice of a request for a special session from Secretary of State John Gale, and that triggers a 10-day timetable for getting two-thirds support.

Circulating bill language is a way to get that done, Dubas said.

"We felt, until senators had something in front of them to say yes or no on, it's pretty hard to see where the numbers fall."

Action shifts to state government just days after the U.S. State Department conducted listening sessions in Lincoln and Atkinson, as well as in other states along the proposed route.

That's a step toward a final decision from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on a presidential permit for the $7 billion, 1,700-mile connection between the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Substantial opposition to the route was expressed at the Nebraska events from landowners and environmental groups. There also were calls for proceeding with the route from business and labor groups.

Dubas' bill would assign much of the responsibility for siting to the Nebraska Public Service Commission. The affected pipelines would be those with diameters greater than 25 inches.

Keystone XL, as proposed by TransCanada, would be 36 inches wide.

"It's our hope that the bill will have enough clarity in that the PSC will be able to move forward without having all the rules and regulations in place from the get-go," Dubas said.

At a Monday news conference, Gov. Dave Heineman reiterated his call for the Obama administration to deny the permit or make TransCanada change the route.

"Change the route, and Nebraskans will support this pipeline," Heineman said.

Last week, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones said states have the power to decide routes of pipelines. But according to Heineman, there still are serious questions about whether states can intervene. If they can, that suggests the dawning of a new era of state's rights, he said.

Heineman met earlier Monday with Dubas and Fulton.

"We don't have much time," Fulton said later. "We act with urgency and it would be better if we could act before the permit is granted -- but not to say that we can't after it's granted."

The key to getting the careful consideration of their peers is to be "logical and chronological about this," he added.

"We can't have a special session without first knowing what it is that we want to pass."

Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, speaker of the Legislature, said he's not ready to endorse a special session.

"I'm trying to size up what we're trying to accomplish and do we have the legal authority," Flood said.

"I'd be the first to say we have a lot of passionate Nebraskans living close to where I live that are contacting me, that are worried about that going through the Sandhills," Flood added. "And then there are folks in my area of the state that are also supportive of it."

He acknowledged the lack of historical precedent for lawmakers calling themselves together, as opposed to responding to a directive from the governor.

"Three months ago, I wouldn't have said that would happen," Flood said. "But I'll be honest. My sense from a lot of members is that there's interest in looking into what Sen. Dubas is proposing. And folks have kept an open mind."

One of the selling points for a bigger state pipeline role is the siting authority used on Keystone XL by Montana. Sought out on that subject Monday, Greg Hallsten of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality confirmed some adjustments in TransCanada's plan.

But the impact was "a few miles at most," Hallsten said.

"Basically, we looked at their proposal and we looked for ways we could avoid problem areas like people's stock ponds and irrigation systems and some of the more sensitive wildlife areas, for example."

"Tweaking" would be a fair characterization, he said.

Montana has yet to sign off on the project.

"Once we get a good idea of what the State Department might do, we will make our final decisions."

Even as Nebraska lawmakers grapple with a special session, pipeline opposition groups are planning a Wednesday news conference in Omaha to announce "first-of-its-kind" legal action involving the endangered burying beetle and landowner rights.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth are among the groups expected to be at the press conference.

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com. Reporter JoAnne Young contributed to this story. Reach her at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

 

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