A special legislative session that began with tumult and trepidation ended on a comparatively tranquil note Tuesday as Nebraska lawmakers approved two oil pipeline bills in response to TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL project.
Lawmakers passed the Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act (LB1), by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, which will give authority for siting future oil pipelines to the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which oversees telecommunications, mass transit and utilities.
They also passed a bill (LB4) by Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler as part of a deal struck by Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk with TransCanada to route the Keystone XL away from Nebraska's environmentally fragile Sandhills.
Both measures passed on a 46-0 vote.
Langemeier, Dubas and the other members of the Natural Resources Committee then walked the bills to Gov. Dave Heineman's office -- an unprecedented move that some observers said was a message to Heineman, who called lawmakers into special session but did not offer legislation to guide them, as is customary.
Heineman immediately signed the measures into law.
"We're here today because a lot of people came together and made some things happen," Dubas said.
She and Langemeier noted citizen input was crucial to the special session. The Natural Resources Committee held some 25 hours of hearings at which more than 160 people -- many of them ordinary citizens -- testified.
"At times, leaders lead, but other times, people lead. And I think on this issue, the people led," Dubas said. "They never wavered in their call for action, and that expectation is why we are here today."
The $7 billion, 1,700-mile Keystone XL will run from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The project was met by fierce resistance from landowners and advocacy groups worried about the effects of an oil spill in the Sandhills region, where water tables -- including those of the massive Ogallala Aquifer -- are particularly high in many places.
On the other side were those arguing that the Keystone XL would provide needed jobs and tax revenue and help reduce the nation's dependence on overseas oil.
There also were legal concerns that any siting legislation that would delay the project would violate the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, pre-empt federal authority to oversee safety issues for pipelines and be deemed special legislation targeting the Keystone XL.
While the U.S. State Department had ordered TransCanada to explore a route that wouldn't go through the Sandhills, there still was the possibility TransCanada could have chosen the Sandhills route.
But Flood announced last week he had brokered a deal whereby TransCanada agreed to voluntarily move the route out of the Sandhills.
Flood then offered an amendment to LB4 that will allow the state to pay $2 million for the required environmental impact study on the new portion of the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska. The U.S. State Department said Nebraska -- through its state Department of Environmental Quality -- would have authority to work with federal officials on such a study. Heineman will then have to sign off on the new pipeline route.
Flood said having the state pay for the study will guarantee it is unbiased and in the best interests of the state.
Flood noted the U.S. Inspector General is investigating the relationship between TransCanada's lobbyists and the State Department, which will give final approval to the pipeline. He also noted some have questioned the validity of the environmental impact study for the Keystone XL that was paid for by TransCanada.
Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada's president for energy and oil pipelines, said earlier that with state and federal officials working together, the new environmental impact study could be done in six to nine months.
LB1 would not apply to the Keystone XL -- which removes the specter of a lawsuit against the state for passing so-called special legislation aimed specifically at the Keystone XL, which has been in the works for more than three years.
Langemeier said the special session showcased the efficiency of Nebraska's one-house Legislature.
"We can solve major problems in Nebraska in a very timely manner," he said.
Said Flood: "I'm proud of the Legislature. I'm proud of the citizen input."