A Nebraska lawmaker says TransCanada bullied landowners into selling easements to their land in preparation to build the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would run through Nebraska's Sandhills region.
"We have clear evidence that TransCanada began threatening landowners in Holt County and other places as early as ... April of last year," Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said Tuesday. "They do not have a permit yet. They did not have one then, and it was completely inappropriate for them to be using this kind of tactic with landowners."
The Judiciary Committee discussed a bill (LB3) by Avery that would require companies to have approval to build pipelines before initiating eminent domain actions to acquire land.
Lawmakers are in special session to consider giving Nebraska authority to say where the Keystone XL oil pipeline crosses the state. The special session was called by Gov. Dave Heineman in answer to growing public concern that TransCanada wants to run it pipeline through the Sandhills and over the massive Ogallala Aquifer, a source of irrigation and drinking water for a large swath of the central United States.
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Eminent domain is a power the state has under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to take private land for public use as long as landowners receive just compensation. Nebraska law also gives such power to pipeline companies like TransCanada.
Several landowners have complained that TransCanada has threatened them with eminent domain, even though the U.S. government has yet to issue a permit for the project.
Avery distributed a letter that TransCanada sent to one landowner.
"TransCanada said, 'We're making an offer and you have 30 days ... to accept this offer or we will invoke the power in eminent domain,'" Avery said. "That is offensive.
"I have talked with landowners in Holt County who told me they were completely intimidated. They were frightened that they were going to lose the property and they didn't know what to do and they only had 30 days," he said. "Why didn't TransCanada offer to negotiate in good faith? Their actions, I believe, were threats designed to intimidate landowners into accepting easement deals. This is unethical. It is deceitful. It is intolerable. We ... do not have to sit back and allow our citizens to be mistreated in this manner."
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said TransCanada did nothing wrong.
"TransCanada has followed all the laws and rules regarding the acquisition of easements for the Keystone XL pipeline," he said. "We have followed the rules and regulations that are on the books in Nebraska today."
Howard said TransCanada works with landowners to reach voluntary agreements whenever possible.
"On the first Keystone pipeline, we reached voluntary agreements with 98 percent of Nebraska landowners along that route. That speaks to our ability to work through a process with landowners," he said. "If a landowner raises an issue or a concern about how they were treated, we investigate that quickly and thoroughly. If we uncover any inappropriate treatment of landowners and our neighbors, the person would be dismissed immediately. We do not tolerate this and it does not reflect our values."
York County landowner Susan Dunavan was among those who got eminent domain letters. She said she sent certified letters to TransCanada to ask questions about the process and received no response.
"Can they say you are failing to negotiate? They do not respect the landowners at all," she said. "It's very intimidating. Very, very intimidating."
Robert Jones, a TransCanada vice president, said the company makes contact -- what he termed "touches" -- with landowners before the eminent domain process begins.
"Before that letter goes out, there are numerous touches ... either by phone or in person or at the public open meetings," Jones said. "We don't discourage them from seeking legal counsel."
He also said TransCanada's land agents are available via the company's toll-free phone lines. And, he said, the company's website has information for landowners.
John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union said existing state law is vague regarding eminent domain and private companies.
"This particular area has no standards. There is no guidance. We are not prescriptive," he said. "As a result of that, TransCanada has taken advantage of that lack of standards and treated our Nebraska landowners in a deplorable fashion. And there has been a constant and a pernicious ... effort on their part to use whatever tactics necessary to get landowners to sign."
Avery offered an amendment to his bill that would make it a misdemeanor for a company to use eminent domain before securing a permit. A second and any subsequent violations would be a felony.
The Keystone XL pipeline would run from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The $7 billion, 1,700-mile project has been met by fierce resistance from Sandhills landowners and advocacy groups worried about the potential effects of an oil spill over the Ogallala aquifer -- the nation's largest.
TransCanada has said the Keystone XL would use state-of-the-art technology and be among the safest in the world. Other pipeline proponents tout the jobs the project would create and say the pipeline would help reduce the nation's reliance on overseas oil.
Although Heineman called the special session, he did not offer legislation to help guide lawmakers, as is customary.
Heineman, a Republican, has said he supports the pipeline but wants it moved away from the aquifer.
Also on Tuesday, the Natural Resources Committee discussed a bill (LB4) by Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler that would give the governor the final say in where major pipelines are built in Nebraska.
It would require companies that want to build major pipelines in the state to apply to the Department of Environmental Quality for permits.
The governor then would set up a panel to review the application, the proposed route of the pipeline, environmental considerations and other factors before making a recommendation to the governor.
The panel would be chaired by the lieutenant governor and include the heads or representatives of DEQ, the Department of Natural Resources and the Game and Parks and Public Service commissions. It also would include a county official and a landowner from each of Nebraska's three congressional districts.
The panel would have to have at least one public hearing and would have to make a recommendation within 60 days after a company applies for a permit. The governor would have 30 days to make a decision.
The bill also would allow the governor to demand conditions, such as the posting of a bond, before approving a project.
"As we were asked to come into a special session, the keynote statement was 'Let's go have a discussion.'" Langemeier said. "And as we prepared to have that discussion, we had no vision as to what to talk about. That's why I introduced LB4 -- to broaden our discussion.
Langemeier said he thinks of his bill "a little bit as zoning -- maybe for a statewide purpose."
"We're not asking them to re-create the wheel for Nebraska," he said. "Nebraskans want a seat at the table. Let's give them a public hearing and a seat at the table."
TransCanada's Jones repeated comments he made on another siting bill, saying Langemeier's measure was unconstitutional and unfair. He said TransCanada has undergone a three-year federal review on the project and that the present route was deemed the safest. He said any delays would jeopardize the project.
Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at (402) 473-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.