Keystone XL is headed for another dramatic showdown. Here's what to expect.
KEYSTONE XL

Keystone XL is headed for another dramatic showdown. Here's what to expect.

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Much has changed in 22 months.

In November 2015, opponents of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline drank to the project's apparent demise: After seven years of wrangling, President Barack Obama's administration had rejected TransCanada's application to build along a 1,179-mile route from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska.

But TransCanada and its supporters didn't abandon the Keystone XL.

Last January, four days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump revived the project, inviting TransCanada to reapply for a cross-border permit, which the U.S. State Department granted two months later.

Now Nebraska regulators are poised to determine the fate of the Keystone XL.

Beginning Monday, members of the Nebraska Public Service Commission will hear testimony from TransCanada, local landowners, environmental groups, Native American tribes and labor unions on whether or not the pipeline serves the public interest.

It's the last major hurdle on the Keystone XL's nearly decade-long path to approval.

Here's a look at what to expect during the weeklong hearing:

Issues at play

Landowners and environmental groups will challenge the pipeline on several grounds, contending that its design won't prevent damage to the land or wildlife, and that it would provide little benefit to individuals and communities along the route.

TransCanada and its supporters counter that the Keystone XL would employ state-of-the-art technology to minimize environmental impacts, and that its construction would create jobs and be an economic boon for Nebraska.

Two questions that can't be considered: the potential impact of spills, and whether or not the pipeline is even likely to be built given shifting demand in the oil market. State law specifically prohibits the Public Service Commission from considering safety in its review, and a judge overseeing the process ruled last week that the pipeline's commercial viability couldn't be considered, either.

Still, expect pipeline opponents to push the envelope, in part to position themselves for an appeal.

And like any major court proceeding, expect some surprises, too.

How to watch

Members of the public will be allowed to attend the hearing, which is at the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel, 333 S. 13th St., Monday through Friday. Doors open at 8 a.m. each day, and the hearing begins at 9 o'clock.

Seating will be limited. An overflow room will be available.

The proceedings will also be streamed live online at netnebraska.org. For highlights, follow Journal Star reporter Zach Pluhacek on Twitter @zachami.

Inside the hearing room, follow court rules: No signs, noisemakers, large bags or backpacks, coolers, food, beverages or recording equipment. Cellphones should be turned off, and noise should be kept to a minimum.

Setting the scene

Pipeline opponents plan a rally and march in downtown Lincoln on Sunday, beginning outside the Capitol at 3 p.m. And supporters of the Keystone XL will host a noon barbecue with TransCanada officials at the Laborers Training Center in Omaha.

Starting Monday, the hearing itself will be a formal proceeding, with testimony from approved witnesses only, and cross examination by attorneys representing official parties in the case.

There will be no closing arguments. Witnesses called by TransCanada will go first, followed by landowners, environmental groups, tribes and unions.

Retired Lancaster County District Judge Karen Flowers will preside over the hearing, under a contract with the Public Service Commission. Flowers will make procedural rulings during the hearing.

The PSC's five elected members will be seated with her and will ultimately decide whether to approve or deny TransCanada's application.

What's next?

A decision will be issued in writing and should come by November.

If the project is approved, and TransCanada makes the final decision to build the pipeline, construction should begin in the middle of 2018 and is expected to take about two years.

If TransCanada's application is denied and the company still wants to build the pipeline, it could file an amended application within 60 days, which would trigger another 60-day review period by the Public Service Commission.

Any decision by the PSC could also be appealed in court. 

How did we get here?

Public concern over the Keystone XL's original proposed route through the Nebraska Sandhills spurred lawmakers to revamp the state's process for evaluating major pipeline projects in 2011.

Adopted that year, the original version of Nebraska's Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act assigned review of the Keystone XL and similar projects to the Public Service Commission, an independent agency. But a controversial rewrite of the act in 2012 shifted authority to the governor and the state Department of Environmental Quality, which the governor oversees.

Pipeline opponents challenged the rewrite, and rather than continue to fight in court, TransCanada chose to apply with the Public Service Commission anyway.

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

On Twitter @zachami.

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