Nebraska’s OK sets up showdown on Keystone

Jennifer A. Dlouhy / Houston Chronicle /

Published Jan 23, 2013 at 04:00AM

WASHINGTON — Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman approved a new route Tuesday for the Keystone XL pipeline, setting up what environmentalists say is a major test of President Barack Obama’s inaugural vow to combat climate change.

Heineman’s widely anticipated move now puts the future of TransCanada Corp.’s pipeline squarely in front of Obama’s State Department, which is tasked with vetting the $7 billion project because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border.

TransCanada celebrated Heineman’s decision as a move “one step closer to Americans receiving the benefits of Keystone XL: the enhanced energy security it will provide and the thousands of jobs it will create.”

But environmentalists and Nebraska landowners who oppose the project said the state ignored concerns that the pipeline could contribute to climate change by expanding the marketplace for bitumen, the oil sands hydrocarbon generally harvested through more energy-intensive techniques than conventional crudes. Pipeline foes were buoyed by Obama’s Monday assertion that he would “respond to the threat of climate change.”

Jane Kleeb, a resident of Hastings, Neb., who has led a grass-roots campaign against Keystone XL, insisted that Obama can’t support the pipeline and still make good on that climate change promise. “You cannot say the words the president did in his inaugural address and then turn around and approve the pipeline,” she said.

Mary Boeve , executive director of the group 350.org, which has led pipeline protests in Washington, said if Obama approved the pipeline, it “would make a mockery of the commitment he made at the inauguration to take action on climate change.”

Oil industry advocates, by contrast, have cast the Keystone decision as a test of the president’s devotion to energy security, since the pipeline would give the U.S. greater access to crude from a North American ally. They reject assertions that diluted bitumen from Canada is significantly dirtier than other crudes already processed in Gulf Coast refineries.

Advocates also say the pipeline would provide a new path to Texas and Louisiana for oil from surging production in Montana and North Dakota.

Marty Durbin, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, which has lobbied the administration to approve the pipeline, said Heineman’s decision means “another major hurdle has been cleared.”

“With the approval from Nebraska in hand, the president can be confident that the remaining environmental concerns have been addressed,” Durbin said.

The State Department is weighing Nebraska’s verdict on the pipeline in considering whether the project is in the national interest — the test it must pass to gain federal approval. The Department has said it is on track to make its final decision in March or April.

TransCanada already is moving ahead with construction of the southern leg of the pipeline, which does not require State Department approval.