The Nebraska supreme court let stand a statute clearing the way for the Keystone XL pipeline construction in the state, removing an obstacle that President Obama has cited as one reason for delaying any decision on the controversial project.
The state high court ruled 4-3 in favor of landowners opposing the pipeline, but that margin fell short of what was needed to block a state statute allowing pipeline construction. Under Nebraska law, five judges are needed to declare a statute unconstitutional and therefore, the court said, the measure passed in 2012 “must stand by default.”
Proponents of the pipeline hailed the court’s decision Friday, saying it should speed approval of the project.
The ruling came as the House of Representatives approved a bipartisan measure designed to grant a permit allowing Calgary-based TransCanada to construct the pipeline, which would carry tar-like crude from Alberta’s oil sands to a pipeline connection in Nebraska. President Obama has vowed to veto the bill, which passed 266-153 with 28 Democrats voting in favor, and the White House said Friday that commitment still stands.
“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “He’s had six years to approve a project that will increase U.S. energy supplies and create closer ties with our nearest ally and neighbor, and he’s refused to act. Regardless of whatever new excuse he may come up with, Congress is moving forward.”
Meanwhile environmentalists, who have framed the Keystone question as a referendum on climate change, also urged Obama to made a final decision as soon as possible.
“President Obama is now free to act and reject Keystone XL outright,” said 350.org Executive Director May Boeve in a statement. “No matter the route, as long as the pipeline is carrying tar sands oil it is a global warming disaster and fails the President’s climate test.”
Although a heavily Republican state, Nebraska has been tough territory for TransCanada. The company’s efforts to force landowners into allowing right of way ignited a backlash over the question of eminent domain. In 2012, the state legislature passed a bill granting the governor the power to approve the pipeline, which he did, bypassing the state public service commission, which has the authority to regulate pipelines. A group of landowners then sued, calling the bill unconstitutional.
On Friday White House principal deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said the State Department “is examining the court’s decision as part of its process to evaluate whether the Keystone XL Pipeline project serves the national interest.”
“As we have made clear, we are going to let that process play out,” Schultz said. “Regardless of the Nebraska ruling today, the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the President and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests, and if presented to the President, he will veto the bill.”
While the ruling clears a major obstacle in a review process that has dragged on for six years, it could still take months for the administration to reach a final verdict. In May the State Department, which had already completed its environmental analysis of the proposal, suspended the broader review of whether the pipeline served the national interest until the Nebraska Court case was resolved. Now that it is over, State will still have to take comments from eight agencies before reaching its own conclusion about the project.
The agencies had up to 90 days to subject comments to the State Department. It is unclear whether the administration will reset the clock for those submissions--there were only two weeks left when the process was suspended--or only give the agencies a few weeks to comment.
Even once those comments are submitted, there is no specific timetable for how quickly Secretary of State John F. Kerry would have to issue a final decision. “There’s no time limit on him for concluding this,” said a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak about internal deliberations.
After Kerry makes a final decision, the eight agencies will have 14 days to review the determination and object if they disagree with it.
President Obama, if he so chose, could decide to weigh in either before Kerry announced his permitting decision, or afterward. The White House is only obligated to intervene if another Cabinet member objects to State’s final determination.
In a phone call with reporters Friday, TransCanada president and chief executive Russ Girling said the company thought the federal review “could be done within a couple of months” and it could start the two-year construction project as soon as it received a presidential permit.
“There’s always things that we can start doing right away, even in the wintertime,” Girling said, adding that the current dip in oil prices has only intensified producers’ desire for a low-cost way to ship crude. “The need for efficient transportation is greater at this lower price level than a higher price level, potentially.”
“A hundred percent of our shippers are in place,” Girling said, adding that building the pipeline won’t affect climate change because “The oil is already flowing. At the end of the day a pipeline doesn’t promote production or consumption. Prices in the marketplace do that.”