LINCOLN, Neb. – Congress is suddenly scrambling to vote on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but the fate of the oft-delayed $5.4 billion project could still wind up in the hands of an obscure commission in Nebraska that regulates telephones, taxi cabs and grain bins.
The Nebraska Supreme Court is expected to rule within weeks on whether the Nebraska Public Service Commission must review the pipeline before it can cross the state, one of six on the pipeline’s route. Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman gave the green light in January 2013 without the panel’s involvement.
The commission’s possible role is part of the tangled legal and political history of the pipeline and raises questions about whether it will continue to be snagged even if the Senate votes to approve it next week as expected. The House voted 252-161 Friday to move forward with the project. President Barack Obama, who has delayed a decision pending the resolution of the Nebraska issue, has not said whether he would sign the legislation.
The proposed crude-oil pipeline, which would run 1,179 miles from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf coast refineries, has been the subject of a fierce struggle between environmentalists and energy advocates ever since Calgary-based TransCanada proposed it in 2008.
A district court in February ruled that a law that gave Heineman the authority to approve the project ran afoul of Nebraska’s constitution.
Nebraska officials became supportive of the pipeline after TransCanada agreed to change the route to avoid the ecologically sensitive Sandhills region in the remote northern part of the state. In 2012, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law allowing Heineman to give the go-ahead.
But opponents have charged that the state constitution gives that power to the Nebraska Public Service Commission.
The elected commission regulates “common carriers” that are used to transport goods, energy and people. The panel includes four Republicans and one Democrat. The commission generally takes about seven months to approve or deny an application, said Dave Domina, an attorney for the landowners.