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Susan Luebbe and her dad, Bert Straka, took a break on Friday from rounding up cows near Stuart to examine the most recent results in their battle to keep the Keystone XL oil pipeline off their land.

Like with the cows, it's hard for them to tell when they'll be able to shut the gate on a final outcome.

Luebbe said she cried for 20 minutes on Thursday after learning the U.S. State Department had delayed the decision on a presidential permit for the project for a year and directed TransCanada to look for alternative routes outside the Sandhills.

In the middle of it all, it dawned on her "that the little people actually win once in a while. It just kind of takes your breath away," she said.

But by Friday, Luebbe, Straka and surely others -- who have refused to sign easements for the 36-inch, 1,700-mile connection between oil in Alberta and refining capacity in Texas -- were wondering whether theirs was a temporary or permanent victory.

"Right now, everybody is going home and thinking they've won," Straka said. "But I don't think we've won anything yet, have we?"

Three years into the permitting phase for $7 billion worth of construction, and with the Nebraska Legislature still meeting in special session, the State Department pulled back on its repeated promises to act by the end of the year.

Just as quickly, other hefty dollar figures associated with the Nebraska portion of the project slipped into dormant status.

That includes paychecks for unionized construction workers from Omaha and brisk business during construction for smalltown main streets.

It includes earlier estimates of $55 million worth of work by the Nebraska Public Power District on electrical connections that would serve TransCanada pumping stations between the South Dakota border and the Platte River.

And it includes real and personal property tax payments to local units of government from the pipeline that would be comparable to the $145 million TransCanada will start paying next year to 10 counties, including Seward and Saline, along the route of its first Keystone pipeline farther east.

Mark Becker of NPPD said the extra year of federal review calls for an obvious response from its Columbus-based staff and board of directors.

"We're going to delay activities on the transmission infrastructure plan to serve the pipeline," Becker said.

Before the latest delay to consider alternative routes, NPPD had gone as far as to grade the areas where substations were to be located near Ericson, O'Neill and Clarks.

"The schedule, as it was, we'd have to get in there and do this now before the ground freezes," he said.

Becker said contracts call for what's been done and what had been scheduled to be done, including 74 miles of poles and 115,000-volt line, to be at TransCanada's expense.

TransCanada offices in Calgary were closed for a Friday holiday, so its public relations team was unavailable for comment on that matter or on what appears to be another sizable bill for signed easements that might never be used.

Although Luebbe refused to sign, she said the size of an offer for a quarter of a mile of easement access on her property went from $1,800 at the beginning to $18,000 most recently.

The 100-plus Nebraska members of Landowners for Fairness are among those who did reach easement agreements.

Attention will shift now to other route options looked at earlier and set aside by the State Department and TransCanada.

Among them is the route where the 30-inch Keystone pipeline already is buried from the Norfolk area through Seward and Saline counties and to the Nebraska exit point in Jefferson County near Fairbury.

It's been pointed out often that resistance to that route from landowners and environmental groups was much slower to form and much less organized than for the second route through the Sandhills and over a vulnerable portion of the Ogallala Aquifer.

But Bonnie Kruse of Seward, among those who tried and failed to keep the first pipeline out of Seward's wellhead protection area, said things could be different if the Keystone XL proposal is put on a parallel and nearby course.

That's because she's counting on the Legislature to adopt state regulation of pipelines before TransCanada and the State Department get that far.

"The reason why our city council felt they had to let the pipeline through is because we had no legislation to back us up," Kruse said.

If a similar situation develops with Keystone XL, "we feel very good about a situation where that could at least be vetted -- which we never had before."

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com

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