Keystone Pipeline Nebraska

Ornithologist and whooping crane expert Paul Johnsgard testifies before the Nebraska Public Service Commission on Wednesday on possible ways the endangered whooping crane population might be affected by the Keystone XL pipeline. 

Bob Allpress figures just about every bird species that migrates through Nebraska flies past his ranch along the Keya Paha River.

In May, he spotted six endangered whooping cranes in a neighbor's cornfield down the road. And from their own land, he and his wife can see a bald eagle nest in a tree across the water.

"It's about the size of a Volkswagen," Allpress said Wednesday.

The nest is about 200 yards from the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would cut diagonally through his land, one of the oldest remaining homesteads in north-central Nebraska's Keya Paha County.

Allpress was one of a half-dozen farmers and ranchers who testified against the Keystone XL during the third day of a public hearing before the Nebraska Public Service Commission, which is reviewing whether the route is in the public interest.

The 36-inch, $8 billion oil pipeline would run 1,179 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect with the existing Keystone pipeline, carrying Canadian heavy crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Most of Wednesday's testimony focused on how the Keystone XL might impact whooping cranes, as well as sacred Native American burial grounds and artifacts along the route.

In addition to stone tools and arrowheads, officials from the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska have surveyed the Allpress ranch and found depressions from earth lodges, an indicator of long-term settlement in the area, said Shannon Wright, the tribe's historic preservation officer.

But lawyers for TransCanada sought to show that the company follows adequate procedures to protect such sites, and that any impact the Keystone XL might have on whooping cranes and other bird species would be minimal.

Any danger to the cranes would be from new power-transmission lines that would be needed for five pumping stations along the pipeline. Power lines are one of the main killers of migratory birds.

TransCanada says it would need about 20 miles of new transmission lines for the Keystone XL. Environmental groups opposing the project say 60 miles will be necessary.

The risk to the whooping crane population — as few as 400 wild birds worldwide — would be "small" either way, acknowledged Paul Johnsgard, a Lincoln wildlife biologist who testified about the threat to cranes at the request of environmental groups Sierra Club and Bold Nebraska.

Still, Johnsgard said he would oppose any construction of new power transmission lines on a migration route.

Johnsgard, 86, has devoted much of his life to studying whooping cranes, but he admitted under cross examination by TransCanada attorney Jim Powers of Omaha that he reached his conclusions about the Keystone XL without reviewing the company’s application or federal reviews of the proposed route.

"You don't know what literature was considered by the people who analyzed this on behalf of Keystone or on behalf of the state of Nebraska or the U.S. government at the time you made this statement, do you?" Powers asked.

"Not specifically," Johnsgard replied, later adding, "No."

TransCanada also challenged a study by University of Nebraska at Omaha lawyer and economist Michael O'Hara that concluded the Keystone XL would hurt property values along the route. 

While pipelines can be a magnet for activity in some places, such as near pumping stations, they can act as a physical barrier to development elsewhere along the route, O’Hara said.

Having a pipeline would also hurt the “hedonic value” of the land it crosses, O’Hara determined — that is, the value resulting from owners’ feelings about living along a pipeline  instead of something such as a pond or stream.

TransCanada lawyer Patrick Pepper of Omaha noted that O'Hara's conclusions conflict with those of the U.S. State Department and a consultant hired by the Public Service Commission, who found no negative impact on property values.

Allpress, the rancher, said some value can't be quantified, such as that of the Native American artifacts found on his land.

"They are our history."

The hearing, being held at the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel, is scheduled to continue Thursday with more testimony from TransCanada officials. The Public Service Commission will probably reach a decision in November.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or

On Twitter @zachami.


Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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