The state officially has delineated what makes up the Sandhills region that TransCanada's Keystone XL oil pipeline must avoid if it crosses Nebraska.
"Obviously, the applicant cannot propose the route without knowing the area to be avoided," said Mike Linder, director of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. "NDEQ has been reviewing available information and has selected a map of ecoregions which was finalized in 2001 as best depicting the Sandhills region."
This map, titled "Ecoregions of Nebraska and Kansas," was a multi-year project involving numerous state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NDEQ, the U.S. Geological Survey, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the U.S. Forest Service.
The proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile Keystone XL would run from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The project was met by fierce resistance from landowners and advocacy groups worried about the effects of an oil spill in the Sandhills region, where water tables -- including those of the massive Ogallala Aquifer -- are particularly high in many places.
While the U.S. State Department had ordered TransCanada to explore a route that wouldn't go through the Sandhills, there still was the possibility TransCanada could have chosen the Sandhills route.
But legislative Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk announced during the recent pipeline special session that he had brokered a deal whereby TransCanada agreed to voluntarily move the route out of the Sandhills.
Flood then offered an amendment to a bill (LB4) that will allow $2 million to be spent for the study.
Flood said having the state pay for the study will guarantee it is unbiased and in the best interests of the state.
Linder also announced that Pat Rice, administrator for the department's Water Quality Division, will manage the state's review of the proposed pipeline project.
"Pat has extensive experience in water-quality issues, including work related with environmental impact statements," Linder said.
NDEQ has picked HDR Engineering Inc. of Omaha to help evaluate the new pipeline route.
Rice said TransCanada also is precluded by state and federal laws from building the pipeline through so-called heritage or cultural areas, such as the sites of former Native encampments or burial grounds.
Once TransCanada picks the alternate route, Linder said, public comment sessions will be held. President Barack Obama still must approve a permit for the pipeline.
Congressional Republicans, who have touted the pipeline as a way to create jobs and reduce the nation's dependence on overseas oil, successfully inserted language about the Keystone XL into the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011, which Obama signed Dec. 19. The measure gives Obama 60 days to decide whether to approve building the project.
The pipeline's entry point into Nebraska would remain in eastern Keya Paha County. It would exit the state near Steele City in Jefferson County.
The new route likely will add an additional 100 miles of pipeline in Nebraska, which will require adding a fourth pumping station in the state.