TransCanada, the company proposing to build the controversial $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline, filed court documents Tuesday in nine Nebraska counties to start eminent domain proceedings and get the 12 percent of easements it still needs here.
On the same day, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers filed legislation (LB473) that would wrest the power to take land from the Canadian pipeline company.
"The pipeline is like King Kong, and the people and farms are like ants and grasshoppers," Chambers said. "If they get in the way, they will be crushed with no redress."
TransCanada started the condemnation process two days before a deadline to do so or lose eminent domain powers given to it by former Gov. Dave Heineman when he approved the pipeline route in Nebraska two years ago.
The company’s attorneys filed just under 90 actions involving landowners, said Andrew Craig, TransCanada’s Omaha-based land manager for Keystone projects.
“Commencing the eminent domain process in Nebraska does not mean the project is done trying to work towards a voluntary agreement with these landowners,” he said.
TransCanada still hopes to reach voluntary agreements with more than 90 percent of landowners, Craig said. The percent of easements it has in Nebraska has gone from 84 to 88 since Christmas.
But a few Nebraskans continue to stand squarely in the pipeline's path, hoping to stop it from crossing the heartland. They include Stromsburg-area farmer and cattleman Terry Van Housen.
In the wake of the eminent domain filings, Van Housen said he feels like Nebraska lawmakers have thrown him and other landowners “under the rug.”
“I don’t even feel like I live in the United States any more,” Van Housen said. "A foreign company coming over and shoving a pipe through my land without my OK? I feel terrible about it."
The pipeline's proposed path runs through a quarter mile of a cornfield in Polk County on which Van Housen grows corn to feed his 10,000 head of cattle. Van Housen said TransCanada can’t offer him enough money to get him to voluntarily agree to let the pipeline cross his land.
“Ten million dollars would probably make me raise my eyebrows," he said Tuesday. "But really, I know it isn't any good for me, and I know it isn't any good for Nebraska.
“You cannot replace our most beautiful commodity of nice clean water. And they could damage that very easily.”
A spill in Nebraska would be devastating to the Ogallala Aquifer that provides drinking and irrigation water to portions of eight states, Van Housen said.
He plans to join a lawsuit filed last week by landowners that seeks to stop eminent domain and invalidate the 2012 law that gave the governor power to approve the pipeline route. An earlier, similar lawsuit was thrown out by the Nebraska Supreme Court on a technicality on Jan. 9, letting the law stand by default.
In Washington, D.C., the Keystone XL oil pipeline is the top priority on the Republican agenda this Congress. On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected Democrats' bids to ban exports from the Keystone XL oil pipeline and to require building the project with American-made steel.
In largely party-line votes, the Senate sidetracked the first two additions to a bill seeking to approve construction of the pipeline. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota argued that their additions would ensure that the pipeline, which would carry an estimated 830,000 barrels of oil a day from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, would benefit Americans with fuel and jobs.
"Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline have made promises that it would increase our energy security, but when they are given the chance to support keeping that oil in the United States, they actively oppose my amendment to do so," Markey said.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said such restrictions on a privately funded energy project amount to a "slippery slope."
Democrats hope to use the legislation to score political points on key issues associated with the project, including its contribution to global warming. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island outlined Tuesday an eight-word measure that says: "Climate change is real and not a hoax."
The proposed 1,179-mile, 36-inch-diameter underground pipeline would carry mainly heavy crude from western Canada’s oil sands region across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to a pumping station near Steele City along the Nebraska-Kansas border. It passes through a dozen Nebraska counties.
TransCanada already has all the easements it needs in Montana and South Dakota.
The company still needs a presidential permit before it can build across the U.S. border. The U.S. State Department, which oversees the permit application process, told eight federal agencies Friday they have until Feb. 2 to comment on whether construction of the pipeline would be in the nation’s best interest.
Once those comments have been submitted, it will be up to President Barack Obama to give the project thumbs up or down.
An earlier phase of the Keystone XL project, extending from Steele City to an oil hub and tank facility at Cushing, Oklahoma, went online in early 2011. From there, the pipes connect with terminals in Texas that supply refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The county courts in which TransCanada initiated eminent domain proceedings on Tuesday are Keya Paha, Boyd, Holt, Antelope, Boone, Nance, York, Saline and Polk counties.
Attorney Brian Jorde of the Omaha-based Domina Law Office said the proceedings were expected. The law office has worked with a nonprofit legal defense fund called the Nebraska Easement Action Team to keep landowners apprised of events and prepare them for condemnation filings.
Eminent domain proceedings allow governments and certain companies to gain access to land when owners refuse to cooperate or an agreement cannot be reached. It’s a court process in which compensation is determined in conjunction with local appraisers.
The easements TransCanada is seeking vary in length and generally are 50 feet wide and flanked by temporary construction easements, 35 feet on one side and 25 feet on the other. The easement allows TransCanada to build the underground pipe and maintain it.
Property owners keep ownership of the land and can continue to farm it after construction.