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After months of intense lobbying by opponents of a proposed oil pipeline traversing Nebraska's Sandhills region, lawmakers passed a bill Thursday that will hold pipeline owners and operators liable for any environmental damage they cause.

Lawmakers voted 47-0 to give final approval to the bill (LB629) regulating petroleum pipelines -- particularly the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The bill was passed amid increasingly intense clamoring from landowners along the pipeline route for the state to have a watchdog role over the project, which will go over the Ogallala Aquifer and the fragile soils of the Sandhills.

The bill says a pipeline carrier's reclamation obligation "shall continue until the pipeline is permanently decommissioned or removed" and that the carrier is responsible for "reclamation costs resulting from operating the pipeline, except to the extent that another party is determined to be responsible."

The $7 billion project can't happen, however, without approval by the U.S. State Department of an environmental impact statement. Separately, the state department also must decide if a 1,900-mile pipeline between the oil sands of Alberta and refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast is in the national interest.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm and five other lawmakers sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday urging her to delay the decision on permitting the Keystone XL pipeline until May 2012.

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"The Legislature has enacted a good first step in ... LB629, but we need more time to pursue various legislation to ensure that the citizens and landowners of Nebraska are adequately protected by state law," Haar said. "We ask that the state department delay the permit of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to give the Legislature more time to both study and enact necessary legislation in the 2012 legislative session."

Second District Rep. Lee Terry has introduced legislation that would require the State Department to make its decision by Nov. 1. U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns supports legislation that would require a decision within 125 days of the bill's passage in the Senate. U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson opposes legislation that would require the State Department to expedite its decision.

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com

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