TransCanada is still working to lock in more customers before it commits to building the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, a company executive told investors Friday.

Paul Miller, president of TransCanada's liquid pipelines business, said a final decision probably won't come until November or December, after Nebraska regulators have finished their review of the pipeline's proposed route through this state.

"We'll make an assessment of the commercial support and the regulator approvals at that time," Miller said during a conference call with investors Friday morning. "In the event that we do decide to proceed with the project, we still need probably six to nine months to do some of the staging of the construction crews, etc., and that would be followed by about a two-year construction period."

The statements cast further doubt on whether the $8 billion pipeline, first announced nearly a decade ago, will ever be completed.

"It gives me a little bit of optimism," said Art Tanderup, a Neligh-area farmer who opposes the Keystone XL. "Can't get our hopes up too high here. I can't start jumping and doing my happy dance."

About half a mile of the 36-inch underground pipeline would cross through Tanderup's land en route from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City near the Nebraska-Kansas state line. The Keystone XL would then meet up with an existing pipeline network to carry heavy crude to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Tanderup plans to be in the audience at the Cornhusker Marriott in Lincoln when the Nebraska Public Service Commission holds its five-day formal hearing on the project beginning Aug. 7. The commission also took comments from the general public during four hearings this summer.

A decision by Nebraska regulators should come by late November and would be the final major hurdle for Keystone XL to overcome, assuming TransCanada can rally sufficient buy-in from customers. 

Miller said the company lost some potential customers after then-President Barack Obama rejected the project in 2015, although some of that interest has returned since President Donald Trump reversed Obama's decision earlier this year, one of his first acts in office.

On Thursday, TransCanada launched an "open season" to seek out new contracts for the pipeline. That process will close Sept. 28, Miller said. 

Politico, one of the first national news outlets to highlight Miller's statements, reported that one problem TransCanada faces is shifting demand for oil.

Much of that demand is coming from Asia, so shippers would probably prefer to move oil to the West Coast for export, said Rusty Braziel, president of energy consulting firm RBN Energy.

“If you’re a producer in Alberta, the conundrum you face here is you really want to go west," Braziel told Politico. "Do you want to take barrels to the Gulf Coast and fight with everyone else sending barrels through the Gulf Coast? Hell no.”

Jane Kleeb, founder of the anti-pipeline group Bold Alliance, questioned why Nebraska should approve a project that might never be built but would give TransCanada permanent easements to Nebraskans' land.

"I don't even think that the Public Service Commission should be considering this," she said. "If they don't have the committed shippers, why are we considering a pipeline route through our state?"

TransCanada spokesman Matthew John said he doesn't believe Miller's comments Friday reflect any change in the company's commitment to the project or its path forward with Nebraska regulators.

"It's just part of the process that we're going through to rework contracts."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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