York County talks pipeline zoning

York County talks pipeline zoning

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Shannon Graves sat before the York County Board of Commissioners and held up a glossy postcard, the kind that tends to fill up mailboxes during elections and contentious political fights.

“These gentlemen with Nebraskans For Jobs that sent out this postcard calling me a radical environmentalist for bringing this zoning to you guys offends me. We are landowners. We are local people. We are here to protect ourselves from anything that might happen now or in the future,” the Bradshaw woman said during a public hearing Tuesday night on proposed county zoning regulations, part of which would apply to the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Nebraska residents concerned about the Keystone XL project continue to explore and debate the flexing of local powers over land use and development along the proposed path, even as the state Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of Nebraska’s Major Oil Pipeline Siting Act and crude oil prices continue to drop.

In York County, the proposed zoning discussed Tuesday spans rural, commercial industrial and agricultural districts, dealing with issues that range from livestock operations to regulation of transmission lines.

TransCanada -- the Calgary-based company that wants to build the 1,179-mile Keystone XL pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City on the Nebraska-Kansas border -- is fighting attempts to regulate pipeline safety on the local level.

“Ensuring our pipeline doesn’t cause adverse affects is a guiding principal in the way we conduct business in York County and all the other counties we cross," said Robert Latimer of Omaha, one of four TransCanada employees to attend the public meeting Tuesday. "Our existing practices comply with stringent federal laws and regulations that govern pipeline construction operation and maintenance.”

Latimer, who works directly with landowners in the proposed pipeline's path, urged the county’s five commissioners to reject the cropland protection section of zoning proposals recently put forward by the county’s zoning commission.

“The Department of State federal environmental impact statement for (the Keystone XL) concluded that this would be the safest pipeline ever built,” Latimer said.

The proposed 36-inch-diameter pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day, mostly from Canada’s tar sands region, and pass through 12 Nebraska counties before connecting with existing pipelines linked to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. 

While local governments can’t address issues of safety or routing -- those roles rest squarely with the federal and state governments, respectively -- county boards do have broad powers to create zoning regulations dealing with issues such as how deep transmission lines must be buried, preventing top soil from being stripped and requiring restoration of land to preconstruction conditions, said York attorney Orval Stahr, who is working with the York County Zoning Commission in developing such regulations.

Stahr said residents in other counties, including Polk and Antelope, have inquired about zoning regulations but may be waiting to see what York County does before making a move.

An official with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration affirmed that local governments have “broad powers to regulate land use and property development, including in the vicinity of pipelines” in a May 28 letter sent to TransCanada.

Chris Peterson, of the pro-pipeline group Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence, said protecting agriculture is only a screen to hide the real purpose of the proposed zoning regulations.

"These regulations are an attempt to stop or at least slow and increase the cost of the Keystone XL pipeline, and they are chiefly being promoted by a small and vocal minority,” Peterson said at the hearing.

Only Holt County in Nebraska has adopted zoning regulations for major pipelines. It did so in November 2010, two years after TransCanada applied with the U.S. State Department for a presidential permit to build the Keystone XL.

That permitting process, required because the pipeline would cross an international border, has been on hold since the Nebraska Supreme Court decided to review a lower court’s decision to rule unconstitutional a 2012 law (LB1161) that allowed review of pipeline routes to bypass the state’s Public Service Commission and instead be evaluated by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and approved by the governor.

York County commissioners, based on the advice of County Attorney Candace Dick, have decided to wait to address zoning that would affect the pipeline until after the Supreme Court's ruling.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ljsbergin.

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