The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality released 68 pages of initial feedback Tuesday on a proposed alternative route for the Keystone XL pipeline that would avoid the Nebraska Sandhills.
In commenting on its contents, Pat Rice, NDEQ's project manager, said the agency wants more answers from pipeline builder TransCanada on how the project can be constructed and operated safely. But Rice made it clear the agency cannot reject TransCanada's choice.
“We’re trying to help them find the best route,” he said. “They get to choose the route. We have no authority to tell them what route to choose one direction or the other.”
The formal feedback circulated Tuesday comes both from agency review and from citizens involved in four public meetings along the alternate route earlier this year.
It’s the latest development in an ongoing saga that dates to TransCanada’s application more than three years ago to build a second petroleum pipeline through the state.
If it’s eventually approved by the U.S. State Department, it would connect the oil sands of Alberta with refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Federal officials want the state’s input first on how to route the 36-inch diameter line around the Sandhills and away from the most porous parts of the Ogallala Aquifer.
“The next step is for TransCanada to complete its field work, identify a route and then provide us with a route,” Rice said.
That leads to a public hearing at a site that has yet to be identified along or near the alternative route and ultimately to a recommendation to Gov. Dave Heineman on a specific path.
In finishing its task, the Calgary-based company is supposed to respond to NDEQ queries on numerous points. That includes what it can do to protect soil and water that will be at risk, even though those natural resources are off the official Sandhills map being used by state and federal officials.
In written agency comments, state regulators noted that “the proposed corridor still crosses areas of fragile, sandy soils that are outside of the Sandhills ecoregion but that have surface features very similar to the Sandhills.”
Rice said NDEQ also expects to get more detailed information on chemicals mixed in with oil moving southward that may or may not be a threat in the event of an oil spill.
“We’ve asked for that in this report.”
Public feedback flowing through agency channels has been mixed, Rice said.
“We’ve had about 600-700 telephone calls come in and those get transcribed and put in our system. And I think a majority of those have been favorable to the pipeline.”
Written comments have been more evenly divided.
Steadfast pipeline opponent Ken Winston of the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club saw some positives in Tuesday’s report, including an acknowledgment that the terrain the alternate route would cross “is very similar to the Sandhills.”
But Winston isn’t satisfied with an approach that calls on TransCanada to explain why that similar path is the best path.
The state should require TransCanada to move farther away from fragile soil and water resources, he said.
“Those are the same issues that were problematic with the original route,” Winston said.
Even though Rice said the state has no siting authority over pipelines, Winston doesn’t see state approval of TransCanada’s preferences as a foregone conclusion.
“They’re supposed to evaluate,” he said, “and the governor can certainly say no based on NDEQ’S evaluation.”
TransCanada did not respond to repeated requests from the Journal Star for reaction to the state report Tuesday afternoon.
Rice and his NDEQ boss, Mike Linder, also want “a worst case spill scenario” from TransCanada, and a spill response plan.
In a summary of public feedback, the written report said one of the most frequent questions is why the company doesn’t plan to build its second pipeline closer to its first one.
The first comes through the Lincoln area about 25 miles to the west and just west of Seward. Oil started flowing through it in mid-2010.
“Keystone should provide a clear and concise explanation for why this alternative was rejected,” the report said.