Blogs & Comment

Keystone XL vs. Nebraska farmer: Erica Alini

Pipeline's enemies emboldened?

TransCanada might have skirted the Ogallala Aquifer, but could still end up in a Nebraska quagmire, figuratively speaking, if a small group of local farmers have their way.

A little-known trial set for next month could delay construction of the Keystone XL by years even if the White House were to give its final nod to the project as a whole. Three Nebraska landowners contend Governor Dave Heineman did not have the constitutional authority to approve the pipeline — nor grant TransCanada eminent domain powers over the land Keystone is expected to cross — and they’ve just won the right to be heard in court. If they win, TransCanada might have to re-obtain clearance to build the pipeline in Nebraska all over again.

It would be another ride on the Nebraska merry-go-round for TransCanada, which has already had to modify parts of the pipeline’s planned route to circumvent the aquifer and the most fragile parts of the Nebraska Sandhills region.

Avoiding ecologically delicate areas is entirely worth it, but what if a win by the plaintiffs prompts yet more amendments to the Keystone route?

It would mean more wasted time, money and effort. TransCanada announced in mid-June that it would start de-registering the easements it had a acquired in areas covering the original pipeline route — some 367 properties. “In keeping with what we have said and what is standard practice for TransCanada, the landowners involved will be able to retain the payments made to them in exchange for these easement agreements,” TransCanada Keystone Projects vice-president Corey Goulet says in the related press release.

I’m aware that this the price of good P.R. for a deep-pocketed pipeline company: You can’t afford to upset some Nebraska farmers when you’re still collecting signatures from some of their neighbours. As Mr. Goulet put it:

As we go through the process of releasing these easement agreements … We will keep working with affected landowners in an open and transparent manner and we look forward to continuing to earn the trust of the people whose land our pipeline will cross.

The goodwill effort, though, doesn’t seem to be going very far. A recent article in the Lincoln Journal Star reports that TransCanada has upped signing bonuses for easement agreements from between $1,000 and $5,000 per mile to as much as $45,000 per mile and is still struggling to win over the hearts and minds of a number of local holdouts.

It’s hard to not to wonder whether Nebraska farmers aren’t getting their cues, at least in part, from Washington. Sure, a setback in the state won’t be an insurmountable obstacle if the Keystone gets the presidential nod. But, as one farmer who refuses to sign with TransCanada told the Star Journal: “Since the president can take his time, so can we.”

I wonder whether his peers’ lawsuit would have gained as much momentum as it has, had the president not been so impossibly ambiguous on Keystone recently.

Erica Alini is a California-based reporter and a regular contributor to CanadianBusiness.com, where she covers the U.S. economy.