Lawmakers voted 44-5 Wednesday to give final approval to a bill (LB1161) that will allow Nebraska to proceed with a $2 million study to find a route for TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline through the state.
Gov. Dave Heineman is expected to sign the measure into law.
The $7 billion, 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline would run from Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The project initially was met by fierce resistance from landowners and advocacy groups worried about the effects of an oil spill in the Sandhills, where water tables -- including those of the massive Ogallala Aquifer -- are particularly high in many places.
It has become a political lightning rod in Washington, D.C., and in Lincoln, where state lawmakers met in special session in November and passed two major pipeline bills. During the special session, TransCanada agreed to look for a new route that avoids the Sandhills.
The bill passed Wednesday will require TransCanada to reimburse the state for the route study. It also would require the state Department of Environmental Quality to have at least one public hearing before making a recommendation about a route, among other things.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, abandoned his effort to make changes to the pipeline approval process after opponents -- including Bold Nebraska, the Nebraska Farmers Union, the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council -- said the changes should have a public hearing. The opponents also fear a new route still could threaten the aquifer.
TransCanada will work with the DEQ to find a new route.
An overwhelming majority of Nebraskans support the Keystone XL pipeline, said Shawn Howard, a spokesperson for TransCanada, in an email after the vote.
"Even many of those who expressed opposition to the pipeline in 2011 had issue with the route only, not the pipeline, the oil or the economic and energy security benefits it will bring to Nebraska and America," he said.
"TransCanada remains strongly committed to seeing both the Keystone XL and Gulf Coast Project built," Howard said.
The pipeline ultimately will need U.S. State Department approval because the Keystone XL would cross an international border.
In December, Congressional Republicans -- who say the project will create jobs and reduce dependence on overseas oil -- tried to force President Obama to make a decision on TransCanada's application within 60 days. They did that by attaching the requirement to a payroll tax cut bill that Obama supported and signed into law.
But Obama denied TransCanada's application in January because he said the 60-day timetable didn't give Nebraska enough time to conduct its review of an alternative to the original route through the Sandhills.